Africa

Nigeria’s war against Boko Haram: if this is winning, what does losing look like?

By Simon Allison 21 February 2014

Apparently, Nigeria is winning the war against Boko Haram. So, at least, say the spin doctors. But the mounting corpses give the lie to this delusion, and Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan might be better served by acknowledging that his military crackdown isn’t working. After all, the first step on any road to recovery is to admit you have a problem. By SIMON ALLISON.

Hounded by journalists, harassed by the boss, it’s not easy being a presidential spokesperson. Just ask Mac Maharaj, who has spent the last three years desperately fighting fires as Jacob Zuma lurches from one PR disaster to another. But even Maharaj, who seems to have a ready explanation for every presidential indiscretion, may have baulked at the task assigned to poor Doyin Okupe, spin doctor to Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan.

At a press conference on Tuesday in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, Okupe was to explain why – against the mounting evidence to the contrary – Jonathan’s government was in fact winning the war against Islamist insurgent group Boko Haram.

“We state authoritatively, without any fear or equivocation whatsoever, that Nigeria is already winning the war against terror and the activities of the insurgents will be terminated within the shortest possible time,” he told the assembled journalists, managing to keep a straight face all the while. Praising the “sophistication” of the military, Okupe concluded: “It is therefore wrong for anyone, Nigerian or foreigner, to assert that our armed forces cannot defeat the Boko Haram insurgents or to insinuate that the insurgents are better armed…this definitely belies the suggestion in certain quarters that the Federal Government is not doing the needful in prosecuting this war.”

It didn’t take long for Boko Haram to expose Okupe’s spin as the shallow propaganda that it is. Just a few hours after the Abuja press conference – at around 4am on Wednesday – the group struck again, storming the northeastern town of Bama. According to media reports, the militants were armed with heavy weapons and explosives, which they used indiscriminately on the civilian population.

“We are collating the figures and the death toll has risen to 60 from the Bama attack,” said Lawal Tanko, the state police commissioner. “The toll is likely to rise. The attackers caused enormous destruction. They burnt down some of the major landmarks in the town including the local government secretariat.” Tanko claimed that the Nigerian military scrambled fighter jets in response, dropping bombs on the departing Boko Haram convoy and killing “huge” numbers of militants. There has been no independent verification of this claim.

The Bama attack follows the pattern of a similar one on Sunday, which left 106 people dead in the village of Izge, near the border with Cameroon.

Already, in less than two months of 2014, Boko Haram have killed more than 245 people. If this is winning, Mr Okupe, what does losing look like?

Even more ominously, the group’s rhetoric and tactics are evolving in response to the Nigerian military offensive against them. Increasingly, Boko Haram are going after soft civilian targets in spectacular, headline-grabbing raids, rather than concentrating on better-protected government offices or military installations. And, in a video released on Wednesday, Boko Haram leader Ibrahim Shekau promised to start operations against the oil-rich Niger Delta region – Nigeria’s economic heartland. Previously, Boko Haram has largely been confined to the predominantly Muslim north and north-eastern states.

Surrounded by armed men and a tank, Shekau threatened: “You will in coming days see your refinery bombed. Niger Delta, you are in trouble.”

Until now, Boko Haram’s stated ambition has been to carve out an Islamic emirate from northern Nigeria, which is predominantly Muslim anyway. This would be governed according to strict Islamic law, and western teachings would be dispensed with (Boko Haram translates, roughly, as ‘western education is forbidden’). By widening its scope to the Niger Delta, Boko Haram is signalling a change of aims, from secession to all-out revolution. It doesn’t sound, exactly, like a group that’s in the process of being mopped up by the Nigerian government.

Further undermining Okupe’s declaration of imminent victory – which brings to mind George W. Bush’s infamous ‘Mission Accomplished’ speech on board the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003 – are the comments of the government officials who actually having to deal with the crisis.

Consider this withering assessment from Borno State governor Ibrahim Shettima. Borno State has witnessed some of the worst Boko Haram violence, including the Bama attack:

“In all fairness to the officers and men of the Nigerian Army and Police, they are doing their best, given the circumstances they have found themselves in. But, honestly, Boko Haram are better armed and are better motivated than our own troops. And believe me – I am an eternal optimist as I have always said, but I am also a realist. Given the present state of affairs, it is absolutely impossible for us to defeat Boko Haram.”

President Jonathan, perhaps, has other things on his mind besides battling a difficult, seemingly unstoppable insurgency. There’s an election coming up next year, after all, and he might not have it all his own way. He’s also just tried to sack his widely-respected Central Bank governor, Lamido Sanusi, for raising too many uncomfortable questions about missing oil billions (Sanusi is challenging his suspension in court). But these are flimsy excuses, and the fact remains: no matter what his spokesman might say, Nigeria is losing the war against Boko Haram. Jonathan must first acknowledge the problem before he can hope to fix it. DM

Read more:

  • Nigeria winning war against Boko Haram, claims Okupe on PM News
  • Analysis: Has Nigeria’s ‘major offensive’ against Boko Haram been a failure? on Daily Maverick

Photo: Residents stand in front of destroyed properties and houses following an attack in Kawuri, January 28, 2014. An attack by suspected Islamist Boko Haram insurgents on the northeast Nigerian village of Kawuri on Monday killed 85 people, up from 40 previously reported, officials said on Tuesday. REUTERS/Stringer

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