Nigeria’s President Says Boko Haram Is Finished as a Fighting Force

Muhammadu Buhari
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari speaks during his meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama at the United Nations General Assembly, New York, September 20. Buhari is one of several West African heads of state due to travel to Gambia in a bid to convince Jammeh to accept the election result and step down. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Almost exactly a year after he proclaimed that the Nigerian military had “technically defeated” Boko Haram, President Muhammadu Buhari has again insisted that the end is coming for the Islamist militant group.

At a security conference in the Senegalese capital Dakar on Tuesday, the Nigerian president said that members of the militant group—which has fractured into a faction loyal to long-time leader Abubakar Shekau and another affiliated to the Islamic State (ISIS) militant group—had been surrendering “en masse” in Chad, and that regional military forces were preparing a final onslaught on the group’s hideout in the remote Sambisa forest. “As far as Boko Haram is concerned in the Lake Chad Basin area, I think they are done for,” said Buhari.

The comments echoed a similar pronouncement Buhari made in December 2015, when he told the BBC that “technically, we have won the war” against the militant group. Buhari’s logic was that Boko Haram had reverted to guerrilla tactics—using young girls as suicide bombers, for example—and no longer resembled an “organized fighting force” capable of “conventional attacks on centers of communication and populations.”

Newsweek reviewed several key markers to track Buhari’s progress in fighting Boko Haram between December 2015 and today.

Deaths in Boko Haram-affected states

Boko Haram’s armed insurgency, which began in 2009, has been heavily concentrated in northeast Nigeria. The group was founded in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, and previously held territory also in the neighboring states of Yobe and Adamawa.

From January to December 2015, a total of 7,309 deaths were recorded in these three states, according to the Council on Foreign Relations’ Nigeria Security Tracker. While this tool does not identify the perpetrators of the deaths, it is safe to assume that Boko Haram is the main contributor: no other group has been as active or deadly as the Islamist militants, who were named as the world’s deadliest militant group in 2014, ahead of ISIS, by the Institute of Economics and Peace.

Dalori villagers rest after their houses were destroyed by Boko Haram. Victims of the Boko Haram attack on Dalori rest in their damaged houses in Maiduguri, Nigeria, February 4. More than 80 people were killed in the attack, one of Boko Haram's deadliest in 2016. Stringer/Reuters

So far in 2016, the number of casualties attributable to the group in those three states has dropped by a third. Boko Haram has killed 2,306 people in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa. While Boko Haram has regularly used suicide bombing as a tactic, the group has also shown it still has the capacity to attack settled communities, contrary to Buhari’s December 2015 comments: in January, suspected Boko Haram militants attacked the village of Dalori, burning homes and livestock and killing more than 80 people.

Internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Nigeria

As well as causing thousands of deaths, the militant group has displaced millions of Nigerians during the course of its conflict. There were 2.15 million IDPs in Nigeria as of December 31, 2015, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, which is run by the Norwegian Refugee Council. Of these, an estimated 85 percent were displaced as a result of Boko Haram’s insurgency, and more than 1.4 million IDPs were located Borno state.

Nigeria IDP camp Women and children queue outside a UNICEF nutrition clinic at the Muna makeshift camp, which houses more than 16,000 displaced people on the outskirts of Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria, September 15. A U.N. official has said that 14 million people in Nigeria will require aid in 2017. STEFAN HEUNIS/AFP/Getty

Over the past year, the number of IDPs in Nigeria has fallen: the United Nations Refugee Agency estimated around 1.82 million people remain displaced inside the West African country as of December 2. But as Boko Haram has been squeezed within Nigeria, it has spawned out into neighboring countries in the Lake Chad Basin. A total of 2.25 million people are displaced in the region, including substantial populations in Niger, Chad and Cameroon. And the needs of these IDPs continues to grow: the U.N. on Friday launched a $1bn humanitarian appeal to cope with the crisis in northeast Nigeria, saying that 5.1 million people could face serious food shortages over the next year. The appeal led President Buhari to accuse the U.N. and others of exaggerating the situation’s severity with “hyperbolic claims.”

Territory held by Boko Haram

At the peak of its insurgency in early 2015, Boko Haram was estimated to control more than 11,000 square miles of territory—an area the size of Belgium. But Nigerian military advances and the establishment of a regional task force in 2015 gradually reclaimed ground from the group. During his December 2015 interview with the BBC, Buhari claimed that Boko Haram controlled a maximum of four local government areas (LGAs) in Borno state, and none within Yobe or Adamawa. Nigeria has a total of almost 800 LGAs.

Anti-Boko Haram graffiti Anti-Boko Haram graffiti in Bama, a city previously controlled by the militant group, in Borno state, Nigeria, August 31. Boko Haram continues to plague the people of Nigeria's northeast and the surrounding region. Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters

In his speech in Dakar on Tuesday, Buhari asserted that Boko Haram is no longer in control of a single LGA in Nigeria, nor of any meaningful territory. The Nigerian military has said that the militants are pinned back into the Sambisa forest and that soldiers are increasingly advancing upon their positions.

Conclusion

President Buhari again appears to have acted prematurely in declaring Boko Haram finished as a fighting force. Nigeria and its allies have substantially limited the number of deaths perpetrated by the militants and rolled back their territorial gains.

The Buhari administration has also made important symbolic gains against Boko Haram, chiefly the freeing of 23 of the 276 girls abducted from their school in Chibok, northeast Nigeria, in April 2014. Prior to 2016, none of the Chibok girls had been freed, excluding the 57 girls who escaped from the group on the night of the abduction.

But Boko Haram remains a potent paramilitary force: scores of Nigerian soldiers have been killed or gone missing in recent clashes with the militants in Borno, suggesting that the group retains the capacity to battle the military. Boko Haram is still displacing people in Nigeria and beyond, and while it allegedly no longer holds any territory, the group appears well-suited to asymmetric warfare. It may be some time yet before Nigeria can truly say that Boko Haram’s insurgency is over.