Martins Hile, Editor, Financial Nigeria magazine
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Subjects of Interest
- Social Development
The resurgence of the Islamic State in Nigeria 18 Dec 2018
The rise in attacks on the Nigerian military by the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) is a wake-up call for President Muhammadu Buhari who had prematurely declared victory against Islamist insurgency three years ago. The resurgence of terrorism in the country also calls for a new counter-terrorism strategy as well as a revamped military and law enforcement to combat terrorism.
Success on the battlefield is what militaries often seek – and the quicker the better. In contrast, insurgent groups, especially jihadists, take a maximalist approach in which their aim is to fight to the death. Sometimes they might retreat when the battlefield is unfavourable. But they are firm believers in the "long war theory," which is a doctrine of insurgent warfare whereby the fighters aim to wear down their opponents through battles of attrition. While it is important to understand this is the type of insurgent warfare the Nigerian military and law enforcement agencies are up against, there are now two distinct groups within the Nigerian jihadist movement – ISWAP and Boko Haram.
When Boko Haram's leader, Abubakar Shekau, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) in March 2015, he said the Nigerian jihadist group had also rebranded to Wilayat al Sudan al Gharbi, roughly translated in English as Islamic State West African Province. Although his pledge was recognized by the IS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, concerns over Shekau's tactics ultimately led the Islamic State to replace him in August 2016 with Abu Musab al-Barnawi, son of Boko Haram's founder, Mohammad Yusuf.
This effectively splintered the jihadist landscape in Nigeria. With the backing of the Islamic State, ISWAP has become a transnational militant movement with operational footprint in the entire Lake Chad Basin region, which includes Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad. According to the United States Military Academy, ISWAP is the largest Islamic State group in Africa, with a membership of 3,500 fighters as of July 2018. This number dwarfs the membership of 1500 fighters in Shekau's faction, whose operations are mostly in the northeastern part of Nigeria.
A lot of media organisations, commentators and even the military continue to refer to both radical Islamist groups as “Boko Haram.” Sometimes, ISWAP is referred to as a branch of Boko Haram, having predated the former. However, understanding the sectarian distinctions between these groups can help in crafting a more effective counter-terrorism strategy.
Boko Haram has a diffused ideology, embracing jihadist-Salafism – the violent branch of Sunnism that IS subscribes to. It is also linked to al-Qaeda, a terrorist organisation with a divergent ideology from the Islamic State's. Unlike al-Qaeda, the Islamic State's overarching goal is to capture land and territories and therein establish a caliphate. Central to this goal is to facilitate the prophetic fulfilment of the apocalypse or the end of the world. The group's famous slogan is "baqiya wa tatamaddad" (remain and expand). Given this territorial ambition, waging attacks to dislodge militaries becomes part of the modus operandi of IS.
As an affiliate of the Islamic State, ISWAP characterizes the extremely violent jihadist ideology of IS. The group's most recent attack was the three-day assault on the Nigerian Army 157 Task Force Battalion in Metele, Borno State. The attack, which began on November 18, reportedly led to the deaths of at least 118 soldiers, including the battalion's commander. Although Boko Haram has also partaken in attacks against military bases and barracks in the northeast over the last three-and-half years, ISWAP's attacks have been more daring and have accounted for far more military casualties.
Given the sharp increase of such attacks since July 2018, what has been the response of the government to the resurgence of the Islamic State as a potent terrorist organisation in Nigeria? The best way to describe the response is to call it an unfortunate case of dereliction and unaccountability.
One area of unaccountability is obviously with regard to defence spending. By allocating over N428 billion to defence capital spending between 2016 and 2018 – compared to N365 billion capital allocation to education and health combined – the government has ostensibly prioritised defence spending. In addition to the appropriated funds, President Buhari approved $1 billion from the Excess Crude Account in April for the procurement of arms to fight the insurgency. Yet, there are allegations of outdated weaponry and a military that is ill-equipped to combat terrorism.
Following the Metele attack, Nigeria's Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant General Tukur Buratai, said the terrorists were using drones against the military's "defensive positions." Whether he realised it or not, Buratai's remarks were an unwitting admission that the terrorists have put the Nigerian military on the back foot. The military should be on the offensive and have the means to neutralise any aerial capability of the jihadists.
In one weekend in July, Islamist insurgents attacked two military bases in Borno and Yobe states, killing nearly 40 soldiers and officers of the Nigerian Army. Without formal public acknowledgement of this major incident, it took five days after the Metele attack in November before President Buhari spoke publicly about it. Buhari's tardy response to these attacks is reminiscent of his weak leadership disposition at the height of the pastoral conflict last year.
Meanwhile, according to the United Nations, approximately 1.7 million people have been displaced within Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states. In these same states, about three million people face acute food insecurity. Nearly 226,000 Nigerians from the northeast have been forced to flee into Cameroon, Chad and Niger due to the nearly decade-old insurgency.
Buhari's decision to meet with leaders of the countries in the Lake Chad Basin region to deliberate on measures to confront the resurgence of terrorism in the region needs to be complemented by an accountability of defense spending. Under a stronger counter-terrorism strategy, intelligence gathering should be bolstered to identify and cripple the networks of funding, weapons, logistical support and training of the insurgents.
Importantly, a counter-legitimacy campaign is needed to discredit the ideologies of the Islamic State and Boko Haram. This is a soft power approach that can mitigate the radicalisation of more adherents from local populations and weaken IS's ability to franchise terror in Nigeria.