Though under-reported internationally, Nigeria’s conflict with Boko Haram has by no means gone away. African Defence Review sat down with Conway Waddington, a specialist conflict analyst at Consultancy Africa Intelligence, to learn more about current state of the insurgency, and the group’s shifting tactics.

Can you describe the operational environments that COIN/counter-terrorist forces are faced with Nigeria?

In terms of terrain, north-eastern Nigeria is technically comprised of scrubland and savannah-type environments. This means vast open spaces dotted by villages and the occasional urban centre. For the purposes of counter-insurgency (COIN), this means mobility and surveillance are vital to confining and interdicting insurgent’s movements. Communication and co-ordination are especially important. Logistical support for security forces is difficult.

The nature of the operational environment in these two countries is of course much more than just the physical environment. In Nigeria, non-state actors’ groups (call them insurgents or rebels or terrorist groups accordingly) function under varying degrees of support and concealment within sub-sections of the local populace. Boko Haram is concentrated in north-eastern Nigeria largely because this is where it has found support amongst elements of the Muslim Nigerian population which dominates the north of the country. While militant groups have exploited pre-existing inter-ethnic tensions, they are also demographically constrained to some extent. Government forces must exhibit discipline in avoiding wholesale targeting of ethnic groups – something that has happened previously, to the detriment of COIN efforts.

What are the current capabilities of West African armed groups at the moment?

Boko Haram/Ansaru in Nigeria, and AQIM/MOJWA in Mali/Niger/Mauritania are the major players in the regional security mix. While this is not a comprehensive list of non-state actor groups in West Africa that can be considered ‘terrorist groups’, these are the ones to focus on currently.

…in late December 2013, a tank battalion barracks in Maiduguri was effectively overrun, requiring airstrikes to push back the attack

With regards to Boko Haram, while this group use terrorism styled-tactics against civilians or other ‘soft targets’, they also regularly attack Nigerian military and security forces. This requires the ability to coordinate relatively large forces against ‘hard’ targets, and, as has been displayed, a willingness to incur casualties and continue fighting. This suggests a more ‘traditional’ insurgency. Boko Haram has been tactically flexible since it’s relatively peaceful inception in 2002, and later turning to extreme violence in 2009 after the death of its founder in police custody. Boko Haram has utilised motorcycle-borne drive-by shootings as an early terror tactic, followed by increasingly sophisticated and large-scale IED attacks (including vehicle-based IEDs and suicide bombings).

The group has also kidnapped for ransom (although, to a lesser extent than the splinter group Ansaru). Since the May 2013 declaration of a state of emergency by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, and the subsequent military crackdown that saw concentrations of Boko Haram fighters evicted from urban strongholds in Maiduguri and other north-eastern towns and cities, the organisation has turned increasingly to large scale attacks on rural villages, rounding up and killing large numbers of civilians. Nigerian military announcements regularly speak of inflicting large numbers of casualties in suspiciously reported airstrikes and ground assaults on training camps, yet Boko Haram has, in the last six months, launched several major attacks on Nigerian military installations. In one notable instance in late December 2013, a tank battalion barracks in Maiduguri was effectively overrun, requiring airstrikes to push back the attack. Regular reports of Boko Haram presences in neighbouring Cameroon, coupled with these recent large-scale attacks point to Boko Haram steadily morphing into more than just a terrorist group.

In Nigeria, what are the major difficulties which commanders are faced with in the fight against Boko Haram and MEND?

For the time being, the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta (MEND) remains officially inactive, bound by a truce established in 2009. That truce saw MEND leaders exchanging their weapons for various ‘pensions’ and access to government business deals. The sentiment that allowed MEND to recruit large numbers of willing fighters in the Niger Delta region remains, however, with the local population hostile to the Nigerian government for its perceived political and economic marginalisation of the minority groups which happen to populate the source of Nigeria’s economic wealth. Sporadic outbreaks of violence have not meant a resurgence of MEND – and have sometimes involved infighting between former MEND compatriots. Nonetheless, the Joint Task Force (JTF) remains active in the region, engaged in anti-criminal operations targeting oil-bunkerers.

At times, Boko Haram has appeared to be little more than an ideological umbrella organisation for a range of criminal and anti-government sub-groups.

Nigeria’s challenge in combatting Boko Haram is complex. The organisation’s leadership and organisational structure has been difficult to profile. At times, Boko Haram has appeared to be little more than an ideological umbrella organisation for a range of criminal and anti-government sub-groups. At other times, it has shown a more coherent structure. Because it is difficult to make sense of how the group operates, it is difficult to decisively or proactively attack it.

Ideologically, Boko Haram is a radical Salafist Islamist group that seeks the establishment of an Islamic state and Islamic law. This goal is effectively impossible, as Boko Haram does not have the support of the Nigerian Muslim populace, nor can it hope to overthrow the Abuja based government. At the same time, the Nigerian government cannot bring Boko Haram to the negotiations table as there is neither sufficient coercive pressure, nor any incentive (since there is nothing to negotiate over). The Joint Task Force, and later, the specialised military forces gathered to combat Boko Haram have turned increasingly to brutality in their efforts to eliminate the group, but BH has shown itself capable of surviving being expelled from the cities in northern Nigeria, and may even be thriving as a more coherent, focused insurgent group operating from rural bases and bases in neighbouring countries. The poor regional security cooperation and border security of the region further aids Boko Haram’s ability to disengage and retreat to the relative shelter of Cameroon or Niger.

What do forces in Nigeria need most in terms of capability or equipment to best assist them in their operations?

Nigeria’s military performance against Boko Haram is difficult to gauge because of a long-standing trend towards falsification of after-action reports by military spokesmen, and limited press access to military operations. What is clear is that the current approach to combating Boko Haram is not working. As a counter-terrorism force, the Nigerian military has shown itself to be heavy handed – often engaging in retributive raids while failing to effectively leverage intelligence to proactively combat future terrorist attacks. As a counter-insurgency force, the Nigerian military has a long record of human rights offences, including illegal detentions, torture, and extra-judicial executions. Such acts have failed to stop Boko Haram, and may have rallied increased support for the group.

With pressure mounting before the 2015 election, President Goodluck Jonathan, desperate to show progress against Boko Haram, has repeatedly reshuffled his military command, leaving units uncoordinated and unsure of themselves. Discipline and training are not a panacea for the defeat of Boko Haram, but they are desperately needed in the Nigerian military as at least a starting point. More importantly, Nigeria needs to embrace the regional character of the fight against Boko Haram. The military needs to encourage coordination with regional neighbours in order to execute cross-border operations, as well as to start sharing intelligence if the fight is indeed beginning to shift into a transnational insurgency.