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Boko Haram Fighting for their Last Territorial Stronghold

Nigerian Defense Forces celebrate after a victory over Boko Haram in Gwoza

Nigerian Defense Forces celebrate after a victory over Boko Haram in Gwoza

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.

Map of attacks carried out by Boko Haram throughout Nigeria

Map of attacks carried out by Boko Haram throughout Nigeria

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.

Muhammadu Buhari, newly elected president of Nigeria

Muhammadu Buhari, newly elected president of Nigeria

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.

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The Central African Republic’s Crisis in the Center

CAR1On February 12th, the President of the Central African Republic Catherine Samba-Panza declared war on the Christian militias, known as the anti-balaka (anti-machete) for their reprisal wave of targeted killings of Muslims that has plunged the country into a humanitarian crisis. The current violence was preceded by 10 months of attacks on Christian communities by Islamic militant groups known as the Seleka. Amnesty International declared that the present offensive by the Christian anti-balaka has amounted to ethnic cleansing and has caused “a Muslim exodus of historic proportions.” Altogether there are 8,000 troops, (6,000 African Union and 2,000 French) who are trying to stop the sprawling and brutal sectarian violence with another 1,000 incoming from the European Union. Tens of thousands have been killed thus far and over a million people, nearly a quarter of CAR’s population, have been displaced.

CAR2The Central African Republic is a resource-rich but financially poor country that has endured five coups and numerous smaller rebel conflicts since its independence from France in 1960. CAR is about the size of France and is located squarely in the heart of Africa on line where Muslim and Christian cultures intersect that is becoming increasingly pronounced. The country is majority Christian (estimates vary from 55-80%), and the Muslims account for approximately 15% of the population living primarily in the northeast. The exodus of such a high percentage of the Muslim community, which constituted a significant portion of the merchant class, has devastated the country’s domestic economy. Additionally, the country’s neighbors have had more than their own fair share of conflict over state control, resources, and religious schisms presenting more challenges to the refugees fleeing CAR.

The hand-to-hand brutality of the violence and ensuing chaos that has destroyed villages and communities has justifiably attracted the attention of the international community. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon remarked that the situation has created a de facto partition of the country, and a UN force of 12,000 peacekeepers with a broad mandate has been proposed to augment the existing units in place. Though specific militia groups on both sides have undoubtedly been motivated on religious grounds, the violence has also been perpetrated for control over local areas and resources. The International Criminal Court opened an investigation into possible crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by various groups in CAR, though the legal process is incredibly lengthy and limited in who may be prosecuted.

The location of CAR takes place in a fragile region already rife with existing issues, from the northeast and east Sudan-South Sudan tensions, to instability in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the south, to weak states like Chad which do not have the funds nor ability to adequately assist with such a refugee crisis. Holding the perpetrators of violent crimes responsible cannot be accomplished without some degree of stability, and the incoming peacekeeping mission aims to provide a departure from the sprawling and incessant attacks.

It will not cause a domino affect if one country in the region faces such a devastating problem as the Central African Republic currently is, but rather a ripple effect that will undoubtedly strain the stability surrounding states nonetheless.  The issues of religion and ethnicity are not being properly addressed and are too often the cause or justification of revived violence. The threat of genocide is a very real possibility if violent groups retain the ability to act with impunity, but with the consent of the government and the mandate providing further troops to stop the killings, it may very well be prevented from spreading further out of control.

In looking ahead, any and all militia groups need to be held to the same standard by the international forces, else the back-and-forth struggle of retaliatory action will continue. The proposed UN force should be approved given the severity of the situation and the potential for such heinous crimes to continue. President Samba-Panza has shown she will not tolerate obvious attacks on Muslim groups, and along with the CAR government the protection of civilians and de-escalation of conflict need to remain as top priorities. The international community should fast-track sending the necessary forces in order to quell the violence, and needs to play the vital role of investing in the refugees and infrastructure so the Central African Republic may rebound from this blight that has struck at its core.

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