NewsWest AfricaSecurity: A new war against Boko Haram


Posted on Thursday, 25 February 2016 16:53

Security: A new war against Boko Haram

By Patrick Smith

In Baga today a few hundred former residents have returned to try to rebuild their lives. Photo©STR/AFPNigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari and his military chiefs have announced a new army division in the north to protect the former rebel-held areas, but the regional fight is not yet won.

In January, the people of Baga, a city once home to 300,000 people in Borno State in the north-east tip of Nigeria, quietly commemorated a grim anniversary. It was a year since their city was sacked by Boko Haram's fighters, who massacred some 2,000 people and almost levelled the place. Today, the city remains almost empty, with a few hundred former residents trying to re-establish their lives there.

Kashim Shettima, governor of Borno State and a close political ally of President Muhammadu Buhari, says his top priority is to rehabilitate the areas devastated by Boko Haram. He set up a special ministry for the purpose, which will get funding from the federal government.

20The number of Nigerian former military chiefs and officers Buhari ordered to be investigated for arms procurement fraud

"Shettima is very focused on reconstruction and rehabilitation of the towns and villages in Borno," says solid minerals minister Kayode Fayemi, "and that means reviving the economy and consolidating security."

The Baga massacre was the Islamist militia's heaviest attack to date. It was one of a string of military successes that enabled Boko Haram to claim they controlled more than 20 local government areas – a region bigger than Belgium.

Then, in a counter-offensive launched in January 2015 – but shrouded in secrecy and political intrigue – the army and air force started to push back hard against Boko Haram, forcing the Islamists out of almost all the territory they had occupied. It took less than three months of determined fighting against the militants, who built up their bases in the north-east over the previous five years. It was a lightning victory that raised many questions of its own.

Arms probe

Reforming the military has been one of the new government's top priorities. One of President Buhari's first acts in government, on 24 August last year, was to announce a sweeping investigation of military procurement over the past five years, which had been running at an average of $6bn per year. Buhari's investigators have now identified what they claim to be fraudulent arms deals costing more than $4bn.

Weeding out the corruption is only half the story. Buhari, together with his new team – national security adviser Major General Babagana Monguno and chief of army staff Lieutenant General Tukur Buratai – had to shore up morale quickly in the armed forces after many years of neglect and poor leadership.

Now their strategy is to expand both the size and the skills base of the army. In mid-January, Buratai announced the formation of two new divisions: the 6th division, which is to be based in the Niger Delta, and the 8th division, which will be based in Borno State.

Much of the work of the new division in Borno will be to consolidate control over those areas that were previously held by Boko Haram but are now sporadically guarded by vigilante groups. Outside the north-eastern state capitals of Maiduguri, Yola and Damaturu there are continuing worries about security, ambushes and kidnappings.

Buratai, who regularly makes surprise visits to troops in the field and leads them on training sessions, is trusted and popular. Buratai and Monguno, who both hail from Borno State, say they are well aware of the damage done to the army by its poor human rights image. In a pioneering move, Buratai has asked the Nigerian Bar Association, which has a record of independent criticism of government, to examine complaints about the army's human rights abuses.

Although Boko Haram no longer controls vast swathes of territory, it launches sporadic attacks, usually against soft targets such as crowded markets and often using young suicide bombers. More than 50 people were killed in Borno and Adamawa states in a spate of such attacks in December and January.

It is Nigeria's neighbours Cameroon, Chad and Niger that now face the brunt of Boko Haram's attacks. The next phase of the regional war against Boko Haram could prove the most difficult, given continuing problems in coordinating the region's armies under the auspices of the Multinational Joint Task Force based in N'Djamena, the Chadian capital. ●

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