Nigerian Military Makes Final Push Against Boko Haram Before Election

Nigeria Boko Haram Election Goodluck Chad Niger
Nigerien soldiers, working in coordination with the Nigerian military in the counter-insurgency operation, hold up a Boko Haram flag that they had seized in the recently retaken town of Damasak, Nigeria, March 18, 2015. Reuters / Emmanuel Braun

The Nigerian military is making its final push in the bid to oust the radical Islamist group Boko Haram from the territory it controls in the country's northeastern regions before the country's postponed elections, with just three areas left to capture, according to military officials.

Before a counter-insurgency operation was launched against the group by Nigeria, along with regional partners Cameroon, Chad and Niger, the terror group held 20 local government areas out of 27 in the country's northeast, amounting to an area the size of Belgium.

Nigerian president and People's Democratic Party (PDP) leader Goodluck Jonathan pledged to defeat Boko Haram before the vote on 28 March in a bid to demonstrate his security credentials to a concerned electorate. The offensive has been successful, according to commanders, with the military regaining large areas, setting up a major assault on the group's remaining strongholds in the final days before the election.

Lieutenant-General Tobiah Minimah, the Nigerian army's chief of staff, confirmed that just three areas are left to conquer in the operation and all will be liberated.

"We have three local governments remaining, Abadam, Kala-Balge and Gwoza, and we are optimistic that with time we will liberate those," Minimah told Reuters. Nigerian army spokesman Major General Chris Olukolade also confirmed the recapture of Borno state's second-biggest city, Bama, on Monday.

It also emerged last week that hundreds of foreign mercenaries from the former Soviet Union and South Africa had been drafted in by Nigeria to accelerate the battle against the radical Islamist group and plug the capability gap in the Nigerian military's offensive.

Manji Cheto, West Africa analyst at political risk consultancy Teneo Intelligence, says that the military's capture of large swathes of territory from Boko Haram is likely true as their claims have not been countered by local sources.

"The fact that the military's comments have not been refuted by the locals, local chiefs or the state government in Borno is a clear indication that the statements they have put out in the last few weeks regarding the reclaiming of territory is true," says Cheto.

She adds that a declaration of victory against the group may come before the vote on 28 March as the remaining three areas are likely to fall to the military. "I would not rule it out before the 28th. The three remaining towns that are yet to be reclaimed will be."

However, a new report from the Nigeria Security Network has warned that the military's rapid territorial gains will not signal the conclusion of the militant group's insurgency.

"The insurgency does not need to operate like a conventional army, which can be expelled from territory in a series of pitched battles," the report reads. "Instead, it has the capacity to quickly melt away into the countryside and avoid large-scale confrontation."

The election, one of the closest since Nigeria transitioned from successive military rulers to a democratic voting system in 1999, pits Jonathan against opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) party leader and former military general Muhammadu Buhari. Buhari has criticised Jonathan for failing to tackle the six-year insurgency until recent months. The PDP party has succeeded in every election since 1999 and remains favourite heading into the election.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Boko Haram killed over 10,000 people in 2014. They have already reportedly slain more than 2,000 people in the first months of 2015 following a series of mass killings in the town of Baga, in the state of Borno.

A Nigerian government spokesperson was not immediately available for comment.