John Campbell

Africa in Transition

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

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Nigeria Retakes Territory from Boko Haram

by John Campbell
March 24, 2015

A convoy of soldiers from Niger and Chad drive down a looted street in the recently retaken town of Damasak, Nigeria, March 20, 2015. (Emmanuel Braun/Courtesy Reuters)


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.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by Nick

    I congratulate the regional army for their dogged action against the insurgents. Nigerian army is affected by negative political decisions. I appeal to regional army to mount guard over towns recaptured. They should not leave it for Nigerian army until after election.

  • Posted by Femi

    The lack of report I think is due to the absence of embedded journalist within the nigerian unit. I think it’s for a purpose as there is no love lost between both institution. I think the nigerian army has done a very good job. Perhaps we underrated them too soon.
    Lack of advanced equipment was the issue, once that was sorted out, the outcome was inevitable. Good job from supporting forces by the way

  • Posted by abaukaka

    Type your comment in here…what problems do u have with the Nigerian military, you don’t wait for an opportunity to criticise our gallant soldiers and you hardly acknowledge their efforts, you don’t publish the successes recorded by our soldier but you don’t waist time to belittle our military when ever they make mistakes. where is the place of objectivity in your reporting? since you are not in the battle field how did u know that there are foreign marcenaries helping the Nigerian military please be objective.

  • Posted by peccavi

    The militaries of Chad and Niger have not ventured beyond the border towns of Damasak or Gamboru Ngala. After the Chadians had their pictures taken in Dikwa they promptly withdrew (or else why have they announced its cature twice) In the VOA piece they state they are heading to Malam Fatori next, which is curious as they alegedly captured it on 29th January.

    The silly narrative of the mighty Chadians saving Nigerians might be an easy sell because they are extremely media friendly, while the Nigerian Army seems to revel in creating bad press for itself but it is no less a ridiculous narrative than the mercenary force sweeping the Sahel.

    Whilst you might find it difficult to comprehend the Nigerian success it is a fairly simple military equation of more troops and a more aggressive tempo an improved firepower, tactics, planning and logistics.

    The victories are down to Nigeria finally deploying the correct amount of combat power and logistic support to the offensive and the enemy being outmatched.
    Chadian propaganda notwithstanding, the average Nigerian company has done more fighting than their entire task force

  • Posted by Phillip

    The New York Times report failed to note that, under a memorandum of understanding signed between the regional militaries, the Chad/Niger force was to tackle the border towns while the Nigerian forces were to take back Boko Haram’s redoubts inside the states of Yobe, Borno and Adamawa. Nigerian troops were not meant to be in Damasak. Had the NY Times reporter travelled to Bama, the Sambisa forest, Pulka and the outskirts of Gwoza or the other 22 towns captured from Boko Haram he would have found Nigerian soldiers, fighting (and dying) in battle to rid their country of terrorists. (The reporter compounded his error by interviewing residents in Damasak but failing to discover that 500 women and children had just been abducted from the town – if international press reports are to be believed).
    The turnaround did not happen in six weeks: it started in mid-November with the recapture of Mubi and other areas in Adamawa. However. the Nigerian military was still awaiting equipment and undergoing counter-insurgency training, and only ready to launch a full-on offensive in February. And, yes, the contractors have played a critical role.
    When Nigeria tried to buy Cobra attack helicopters from Israel they were blocked by the US partly on the grounds that it would take a year to train Nigerian pilots. So Nigeria got Mi24s from elsewhere and hired contractors to fly them. What else where they supposed to do?
    It is the combination of massive air power, Russian tanks, bush-adapted armor and counter-insurgency combat tactics that turned the tide so swiftly.
    Though pundits and reporters in the US are reluctant to credit the Nigerian military, its successes are widely acknowledged inside the country – including by leading members of the APC such as Borno Governor Khasim Shettima and Borno Senator Mohammad Ndume.

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