December 9, 2020

IntelBrief: Boko Haram Massacre Indicates Frailty in Nigeria’s Counterinsurgency Strategy

People attend a funeral for those killed by suspected Boko Haram militants in Zaabarmar, Nigeria, Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Jossy Ola)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Boko Haram’s massacre of dozens of farmers near Maiduguri shows the jihadists maintain a strong presence in rural areas and populated centers.
  • The lack of effective communication between the Nigerian military and farmers inhibited a prompt response to prevent Boko Haram’s attack.
  • Boko Haram’s mass punishment of civilians for reporting on jihadist movements makes it unlikely that the population will collaborate with the military.
  • It remains unclear what Nigeria’s leadership will do to prevent another massacre, but evidently, changes in strategy are urgently needed.

At the end of November, the Boko Haram faction, led by the ruthless Abubakar Shekau, massacred farmers in the village of Koshebe, resulting in the deaths of at least 110 civilians. While the village was mostly deserted as a result of the war between Boko Haram and the Nigerian army, migrant farmers based in nearby Zabarmari still tend the fields in Koshebe and return to Zabarmari by nightfall. Boko Haram is known to operate around Maiduguri, Borno State’s capital. Boko Haram’s more powerful rival, Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), also remains highly active around Maiduguri. Thus, it was somewhat surprising that Boko Haram could carry out such a large operation in Koshebe, which is 15 kilometers from Zabarmari and 27 kilometers from Maiduguri. 

The presence of both ISWAP and Boko Haram near Maiduguri leads to a more pessimistic assessment of Borno’s security than previously existed. If both factions can readily move their fighters around Maiduguri, it demonstrates how unsafe Borno’s own ‘green zone,’ Maiduguri, actually is. This security situation is concerning not only to civilians and the military, but also to the humanitarian agencies that are based in Maiduguri and travel to rural areas to provide services. For example, ISWAP killed five aid workers in July, after they were kidnapped in northeast Nigeria. At the same time, the massacre might have been avoided if the military had communicated more effectively with the farmers. The massacre occurred just as Borno elections were underway and the military restricted travel to Koshebe in order to provide greater security to populated areas, including Zabarmari town. Details remain murky, but it seems the farmers were unaware of these restrictions and the military was unaware of the farmers’ movements; therefore, soldiers were unprepared to protect the farmers from Boko Haram attacks. Boko Haram itself may not have initially planned the massacre. According to local reports, vigilantes near Koshebe had arrested a Boko Haram member and handed him over to the security forces, who then killed the Boko Haram member. The massacre, which included the decapitation of more than 40 farmers, was likely a form of retaliation. It also shows how military abuses of Boko Haram members can be counter-productive.

Boko Haram claimed the massacre in a video released by a veiled commander, who was not Shekau but was loyal to the terrorist chieftain. Speaking in the Hausa language, the commander stated, ‘You think you can take our brother and hand him to soldiers and live in peace… You should know that, unless you repent, what happened to your people is what you will get from us. We will finish you all.’ This video also ended any speculation that it was ISWAP that conducted the massacre. Although ISWAP is generally more lenient toward civilians than Boko Haram, the Islamic State offshoot has also massacred civilians who collaborated with the military, including north of Maiduguri in Gubio earlier this year. This massacre will further reduce the confidence of people in Borno, and Nigerians generally, that the military will be able to defeat Boko Haram, to say nothing of the challenge posed by ISWAP. For years, Nigeria’s political leaders have promised that the jihadists’ defeat was imminent. In addition, civilians will be further dissuaded from collaborating with the military and reporting jihadists’ movements. These massacres do not help push civilians to the jihadists’ side, but they at least force civilians into submission or a state of muted neutrality.

On the most basic level, to prevent another massacre like this, the Nigerian military must ensure it communicates more effectively with civilians, especially around key events such as elections. There is also talk of allowing farmers to arm themselves, which would enable them to defend themselves if Boko Haram attacks. On the other hand, should farmers clash with Boko Haram and kill any of its members, there is a low probability that the farmers will be able to withstand numerically and tactically superior Boko Haram fighters when the terrorists retaliate. There are no easy answers to counterinsurgency warfare, especially given recent trends in Borno. However, the massacre highlights the urgency for Nigeria’s leadership to rededicate itself to finding better solutions. Solutions may involve shaking up the military leadership and devolving more power to Borno’s governor, Babagana Zulum, to influence military strategy, legal and justice procedures, and development initiatives. Although Zulum favors a humanitarian and development approach to winning the war, he is reportedly considering more drastic measures, such as hiring mercenaries. Whether that idea or other strategic or policy changes will be successful, however, remains to be seen.