Time Running Out on Nigeria's Promise to Box In Boko Haram

Boko Haram fighters
Nigerian soldiers hold up a Boko Haram flag that they had seized in the recently retaken town of Damasak, Nigeria, on March 18, 2015. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has given his administration a deadline of six months to defeat the Boko Haram insurgency. That deadline comes at the end of December. Emmanuel Braun/Reuters

On October 14, during a meeting with General David Rodriguez, commander of U.S. Africa Command, Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari made an ambitious promise. Though only in the fifth month of his presidency, Buhari told his American guest that the insurgency waged by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram would be over by the end of the year. Now, as Buhari's self-imposed deadline approaches, can the man who was elected partly on his promise to defeat Boko Haram live up to his campaign pledge?

Boko Haram doesn't hold the territory it once did. Since February, the Nigerian army—backed by troops from Chad, Cameroon and Niger — has chased the militants from most of their strongholds. The group currently holds just a few small areas of the Sambisa Forest in the northeastern state of Borno. On October 28, Nigerian troops rescued 338 people—most of them women and children—from Boko Haram militants on the edge of the forest. More than a month earlier, a Nigerian military official said schools in Borno towns that Boko Haram had controlled were reopening. Some of those schools had been closed for more than two years.

Buhari's predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, left office without having defeated the insurgency that plagued his presidency. During its six-year uprising, Boko Haram has killed over 20,000 people and displaced another 2.3 million civilians. The militant group became a particular focus of attention around the world in April 2014, when it kidnapped 276 schoolgirls from the remote town of Chibok, in Borno. Two hundred and nineteen of the girls remain missing. At the beginning of the year, five months before Jonathan handed over power in a rare peaceful transition, Boko Haram held about 19,000 square miles of territory in Nigeria's northeast, an area roughly the size of Belgium.

"Boko Haram's emergence and continuation is in large part rooted in weak governance and widespread corruption that have undermined key institutions in Nigeria, including the armed forces," says Elizabeth Donnelly, assistant head of the Africa Program at Chatham House, a London-based independent policy institute . Local media reports, Donnelly says, claimed that some soldiers in the northeast, where Boko Haram is most active, were not paid, and that senior officers and officials allegedly pocketed the cash. The corruption monitoring group Transparency International, headquartered in Berlin, gave Nigeria's military a grade E—the lowest being F—in its 2014 Government Defence Anti-Corruption Index. In his inauguration speech in May, Buhari vowed to stamp out his country's "pervasive corruption" and improve the country's armed forces.

"Buhari has undertaken to reorganize and re-equip the military, something he knows how to do, given his background," says Donnelly. "Abuses by the armed forces have reportedly declined and morale improved—that is an important success."

But that doesn't mean Boko Haram is no longer a serious threat to Nigeria—and the region. Since Buhari took office, the group has killed more than 1,000 people, even though it has lost so much territory. " Boko Haram does what it always does in these situations: When it comes under pressure , it adapts to survive," Donnelly says. "Hence, there has been an increase in suicide bombings, raids and opportunistic attacks."

With just over a month to go for Buhari to make good on his promise, Boko Haram shows no signs of going away. The group is believed to have carried out deadly bombings throughout October in Nigeria and the neighboring countries of Niger, Chad and Cameroon. Donnelly says the attacks on Nigeria's neighbors are partly in retaliation for the three countries helping Nigeria to combat Boko Haram.

"Complete eradication of Boko Haram by the end of 2015 is not possible," Donnelly says. "This crisis, this extremist insurgency, was years in the making. Stopping Boko Haram-related violence entirely is not realistic within the space of a few months."

To do that, experts say, the government needs to address many of the social and economic problems in the country's north. In July, Buhari announced that the World Bank planned to invest $2.1 billion in Nigeria's northeast. Buhari said the loan should be spent on rebuilding infrastructure in that region and resettling its internally displaced people. That part of Nigeria has always been one of the country's poorest, a factor that both drove some people to join Boko Haram and allowed the group to seize territory there. The planned investment, Donnelly says, is the kind of sustainable solution needed to finally end the violence caused by the militants.