Since postponing the national elections from February 14 to March 28, the Abuja government has apparently recovered most of the territory in northeast Nigeria that had been lost to Boko Haram. Of the major towns once captured, only Gwoza appears to remain under Boko Haram’s control.
Since 2011, the Boko Haram movement has inflicted one defeat after another on the Nigerian security services, principally the army. The army’s performance by all accounts had been poor, with reports of mutinies, blatant corruption, and gross underfunding, despite a national security budget in the range of $5-6 billion.
How to account for the seeming turn-around in six weeks?
The Abuja government, in effect, is saying that it has made the defeat of Boko Haram a major priority and greatly increased the resources devoted to it. (President Jonathan has recently acknowledged that his government has paid insufficient attention to this violent Islamist movement.) Little has been said by the Nigerian government about the role of militaries from Chad and Niger that have been operating in northern Nigeria against Boko Haram. Abuja flatly denies that South African, Ukrainian, and Georgian mercenaries are involved in combat, though it acknowledges the presence of foreign “technical advisors.”
However, the New York Times and the Voice of America have reported a substantial mercenary presence. Additionally, the New York Times reports that Chadian troops retook the once-important town of Damasak from Boko Haram, but that no Nigerian troops were present. It also reports that Chadian officials are complaining about the lack of Nigerian military engagement and coordination. Furthermore, Chadian soldiers are worried that the territory will be re-occupied by Boko Haram when they withdraw, due to the absence of the Nigerian military.
There is remarkably little hard information about what is actually going on in northeast Nigeria. To me, the most convincing explanation is that Boko Haram’s reversals have been largely at the hands of mercenaries and foreign militaries. Six weeks is simply too short for a transformation–or even significant improvement–of the security services. However, I acknowledge that we have few hard facts. The UK-based Nigeria Security Network has issued an important special report, “The End of Boko Haram.” It carefully dissects what we know and do not know about the activities of foreign mercenaries and includes well-placed warnings about their potential for alienating local people.
While Boko Haram now holds little territory, there are no signs that it has been defeated. In fact, it has continued its campaign against “soft targets.” Nevertheless, the government’s retaking of territory formerly held by Boko Haram will allow balloting to take place in the northeast on March 28. How many will vote, and how credible the elections in that region will be, remains to be seen.