Following a series of strategic victories over recent months, the Nigerian military announced it has initiated an offensive against Boko Haram’s last conventional holdouts within the Sambisa Forest. The area has been recognized as the militant group’s headquarters since the recapturing of the town of Gwoza in March. Alongside the armies of Chad, Niger, and Cameroon, and backed by fighter jets and irregular volunteers and mercenaries, the coalition effort has successfully won back much of the area previously held by the radical Islamist group. These victories have come after months of setbacks brought about due to rampant corruption, lack of resources, and disorganization on the part of the Nigerian government.
Boko Haram, which can be translated to “western education is forbidden,” has waged a radical Islamist insurgency in northern Nigeria for over five and a half years. The group has claimed responsibility for the 2014 Chibok kidnappings of over 200 schoolgirls, and the conflict has sparked a regional humanitarian crisis.
As recently as January, Boko Haram militants were able to besiege the town of Baga and massacre civilians indiscriminately as estimates of the death toll ranged from several hundred to over 2,000. In such instances, the minimal military presence crumbled instantly and tens of thousands were displaced. As a result, over a dozen villages or towns like Baga were completely destroyed and wiped off the map altogether.
The group transformed from a rogue radical group of militants to a serious military threat when it captured the town of Gwoza around August of last year, sparking a territorial rampage across the northeast of Nigeria. At the peak of their control, Boko Haram controlled over 14 districts and frequently unleashed terrorist attacks in cities across the country. Now thanks to the concerted regional military effort, their ability to exert authority has dwindled and the extremist group’s conventional forces are arguably on their last legs.
Estimates put the number of deaths as a result of the insurgency within Nigeria at over 15,000 in the past three years alone. Last month, Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau’s declaration of allegiance to ISIS was accepted by the militant group based in Iraq and Syria. Boko Haram previously had indirect ties with al-Qaeda affiliate in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), but the declaration of loyalty to ISIS reflects a distancing from al-Qaeda. ISIS and al-Qaeda have been at odds since their official split over a year ago.
Unlike their counterparts in the Middle East, Boko Haram has been reduced to a fraction of their former power in a short amount of time thanks to regional powers banding together. Unfortunately, they will likely still be able to operate in a dangerous capacity even if they are to lose the Sambisa Forest and their conventional control. Nonetheless, forcing Boko Haram out of such areas can initiate the process of reestablishing local and government control to limit the resurgence of the group and further terrorist attacks.
Also important to note, Muhammadu Buhari succeeded Goodluck Jonathan as president of Nigeria on March 28th, pledging to spare no effort in countering the Islamist threat. A former military strongman, General Buhari defeated Jonathan in the first instance of a sitting president losing an election in Nigeria. Buhari proclaimed his commitment to democracy for the country, yet he has been frequently criticized for his poor human rights record. Himself a Muslim from the north of Nigeria, Buhari takes up the leadership reins during a critically contentious moment for Africa’s most populous country.
In all certainty Boko Haram will not disappear after a significant military defeat. Eliminating the control of extremist groups is only the first step in a return to normalcy. The brutal wake that Boko Haram has left as they have lost towns and territory will likely share many similarities to victories won over affiliate groups like ISIS in Iraq and Syria. It is critical to address the circumstances that allow such groups to operate and resolve them even after military goals are achieved.