John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Nigeria: Why are Boko Haram Fighters Successful?

by John Campbell
March 4, 2014

Commanding officers salute during a parade for the Nigeria Army's 150th anniversary celebration in Abuja, July 6, 2013. (Afolabi Sotunde/Courtesy Reuters)


Boko Haram, the diffuse, apparently grass roots insurrection, has undertaken a current wave of carnage in Nigeria’s northeast. Several of the most recent incidents involve government security forces unaccountably not at their posts, allowing Boko Haram freedom of movement. The governor of Borno state publicly said that Boko Haram fighters outgun government forces.

Over the past few weeks I have been hearing from a number of credible interlocutors that Boko Haram fighters are indeed better than government forces. They suggest that Boko Haram has not crumbled to the Nigerian military because:

  • Boko Haram fighters often are, indeed, better armed and equipped than the government’s forces. Boko Haram acquires its weapons and equipment from attacks on government armories as well as, presumably, other sources (Nigeria is awash with weapons).
  •  Boko Haram never leaves behind its dead, or its weapons. It also stages high-profile jailbreaks to free its captive operatives.
  •  Boko Haram provides payments for widows and children of its fighters.
  •  Boko Haram fighters are regularly paid.
  • Finally, at least some Boko Haram fighters believe in their “cause;” the achievement of justice for the poor through Sharia.

These factors can also be identified among other successful fighters in various parts of the world.

As for Boko Haram funding, the amounts distributed by them presumably are quite small. Boko Haram has been involved in bank robberies and kidnappings for ransom. Many of the latter incidents go unreported, so it is difficult to judge what the magnitude might be, but they are a valuable domestic source of revenue. I have seen little to no credible evidence that a significant source of funding comes from abroad, except for various cross-border criminal activities, including smuggling. The same is true of the weaponry that Boko Haram employs. I have seen little evidence that weapons stockpiles from Libya have a transformative presence in Nigeria. Boko Haram attacks certainly employ a quantity of weapons, but their sophistication does not appear to give them a noticeable advantage.

On the other hand, government forces are allegedly poorly equipped, do not receive their pay on time, and do not receive regular medical services. Pensions paid to widows can be erratic. There were also complaints about inadequate equipment and pay during the campaign in Mali last year when Nigerian soldiers were reportedly forced to ask for food from local Malian communities. They were also restricted to manning checkpoints in the capital region because they lacked equipment to deploy further afield.

Muslim Rights Concern raised such shortcomings in northern Nigeria, as I cited in a blog post on February 27, 2014.

Some observers suggest that government forces simply run away when Boko Haram approaches–that is why the security check points are not manned. Their motivation is fear–well placed fear given that Boko Haram has a long tradition of killing any person in the security services that it can.

Traditionally, the policy of the Nigerian government has been to not assign soldiers or police to service in their native regions. Some of my interlocutors suggest this remains true for officers deployed to the regions under the state of emergency, but over-stretched operational requirements and personnel shortages have meant modification to this policy with respect to foot soldiers. Now, it was suggested, many soldiers in the north are from the north. As such, they are particularly fearful of Boko Haram, both from first-hand knowledge and, presumably, fear for their families.

Such points about the strengths of Boko Haram fighters and the weaknesses of the government’s security forces are credible. I would caution that the factors of Boko Haram strength most likely apply to the most ideologically or religiously committed of Islamist fighters, not to the criminal or other score-settling elements, or the political factions that are likely part of the general insurgency. Similarly, the northeast of Nigeria is geographically expansive. Conditions among the government’s security personnel likely vary from place to place.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Muktar Usman-Janguza

    Ambassador Campbell, a very insightful commentary as usual. My questions are:
    1 What effects are the ‘air strikes’ having on the operational capacity of BH.
    2 The Nigerian authorities have blamed Cameroon’s non cooperation & Nigeria’s unwillingness to violate Cmr’s sovereignty for prolongation of BH terrorist activity. What do u make of that?
    3 How do you think ongoing Northeast operation will this affect dynamics of 2015 election: more specifically conducting elections in the NE; and more broadly ‘Northern’ perceptions of a ‘clueless’ administration in Aso Rock.
    4 My real fear is that at best BH insurgency could become like Joseph Kony’s LRA, unlikely to seize power but nevertheless capable enough of operating with impunity in a corner of the country; and worst case we could have a warlord type scenario, particularly if Niger Delta militants decide to return to the creeks.

  • Posted by DR MOHAMMED SANI

    an analysis from international figure

  • Posted by Rahma Monguno

    Nearly all You stated is correct, however Boko Haram (BH) are not fighting a religious war, on the contrary, they are satanic. They have been slaughtering victims regardles of religion, burning people alive, mosques and churches, raping women and girls. The military have been incapacitated by the lack of proffessionalism. I remmembered Paddy Ashdown stating to NATO and the US to send peace “enforcers” not ” keepers” during the war in former Yugoslavia. Our soldiers were not equiped enough to use brute force on a brute and savage enemy, not by chance but negligence. Night vision goggles, google earth facities would have been expected, but no, it seems the will and urgency needed was not there. Some say for political reasons, as to create an electorate vacume as the 3 states are opposition states. Others say and or a revenue creating avenue was born with this crisis, as no one will be able to check the “finances” of this war. However better late than never, it seems the Military has changed strategy. As for the Airforce, it seems it baffles all of us, I’ve spoken with locals in Auno along Jakana, Bnesheikh rd who are aware of wher one of the camps is located, but were confused as helicopters were regularly flying over the camp. They naively assumed BH had used charms and remained invisible to the airforce, what other explantion do they ahave. Helicopters have also been alleged to have dropped items for bh figters, to whom they belong, God knows. Some of those same locals have since been killed or displaced by BH. The leader of Our country, I believe failed in lacking the will to know exactly what was and is on ground, and has not shown half the “emergency” attention this crisis needs. The military again had reported it found some officers were selling some of the vehicles sent for this operation, and have now appointed an infantry man in charge of affairs. Just yesterday an attack by bh was foiled and some members killed, however on the same rd I just heard the Shehu of Dikwas convoy came under attack( same area). What we pray for is for the Airforce to be strengthened and used to maximam capacity, and for the west to lend a helping hand. What happened to our former “masters”?, france I believe would have intervened in a silmilar situation. The movement with ease over such a long period of time, up to 50 pickup trucks at once, in an area wher lcals track individual cows for over a 100km when stolen or go missing all go unanswed. Captured by (CJTF) locals, bh members before meeting their own medicine have stated they were paid huge amounts to fight, by “them”. Not muslims they say pay, and its a contract. To get to the bottom of this and for the world to know, as elections are observed, so should crisis managemen, by the international community, honestly!

  • Posted by Colonel

    Your usual lies about nigeria

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