The 2015 Baga massacre, perpetrated last January by Boko Haram, can be perceived as a sign of the will of the terrorist organization to raise the stakes of its action, ultimately switching from relatively smaller-scale attacks to a larger action, closer to “proper” organized military tactics.
Between the 3rd and the 7th January 2015 Baga –a fishing settlement in Borno State on the border with Chad – was sadly propelled into the limelight, as it became the theatre of a “disturbing and bloody escalation”, as Amnesty International has defined the massacre carried out by Boko Haram. The number of fatalities of the Baga attacks (reportedly held between the indicated period) is still not confirmed: Nigerian official government sources refer about circa 150 killings, while local officials suggest a figure of around 2000 victims. Most victims are women, children, and the elderly. Boko Haram fighters also rampaged through the buildings in Baga, resulting in extensive looting and in the burning of 3100 structures. As an image released by Human Rights Watch starkly shows, 11% of Baga has been destroyed by Boko Haram. Other than Baga, sources report the 16 smaller settlements in the area have been destroyed, resulting in the displacement of circa 35000 people. In particular, the village of Doro Gowon- the base of the Multinational Joint Task Force-has been badly hit by Boko Haram’s fury. Indeed, a bleak image released by Human Rights Watch reveals the utter devastation brought about by Boko Haram, which burnt vast areas, amounting to approximately 57% of the village.
Baga has a strategic significance for Boko Haram fighters. Indeed, probably, the Baga area has been targeted for two possible (concurring) reasons: the presence in the area of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) base, apparently the main target of the attack, and the “legacy” of the 2013 attacks.
The Multinational Joint Task Force, established in 1998, is composed by Nigeria, Chad, Niger, Cameroon, and Benin, and is a signal of the regional involvement of state actors in the maintenance of security in the border areas. The MNJTF is assuming increasing relevance as a military tool to fight against Boko Haram. Regarding the second reason explaining the strategic importance of Baga as Boko Haram’s target, in April 2013 the city was the site of a massacre, whose details remain unclear. In fact, Nigerian troops allegedly killed civilians, attacked non-military targets, and destructed properties- 2275 buildings were razed according to Human Rights Watch’s estimates- in counter-terrorism operations. Indeed, they were reacting to Boko Haram’s killing of a Nigerian soldier. However, military officials of Nigeria decline the responsibility for the attack and blame Boko Haram as the perpetrators.
Boko Haram’s action escalated further after the January 2015 attack in Baga, which already strongly contributed to overall destabilization of the area and to the enfeeblement of the President’s and the institutions’ authority. Since January 7, Boko Haram has been relentlessly on the offensive: the following summary is an essential, but not exhaustive timeline of Boko Haram’s attacks in Nigeria. Crucially, Boko Haram’s actions do not refrain from gratuitous cruelty. Indeed, Boko Haram was reported to have exploited children as underage bombers in Maiduguri – the birthplace of Boko Haram in Borno state – on January 10, when a girl aged between 10 and 18 years old exploded while being screened at the entrance of a lively market, killing 20 people. The market had been a frequent target of Boko Haram’s attacks. The use of a child bomber was a novelty in Boko Haram’s history. The girl concealed explosives under her veil, although the New York Times reported that several witnesses claimed that it seemed that the girl was not aware of it. Boko Haram has also often deployed women as human explosives. Additionally, Boko Haram’s brutality is further testified by its frequent kidnappings. Recently, on January 18 Boko Haram kidnapped 80 people, including 50 children, in North Cameroon, near the village of Mabass. The Cameroonian army has released around 20 abducted people. On January 25, Boko Haram and the Nigerian army clashed again in Maiduguri. The Nigerian troops blocked the rods into the city and repelled the attack. Reportedly 200 Boko Haram fighters were dead following the clashes. As the battle in Maiduguri was raging, Boko Haram attacked, using scorched-earth tactics, villages located 200 km to the South, where they looted and burnt homes, and abducted women and children. On 1 February, Boko Haram attacked again Maiduguri, but was repelled by the Nigerian army and 80 militants were killed. On February 14, the terrorists shot into the air in Gombe and circulated leaflets scaring voters from polling. On 15 February, Boko Haram stormed Askira in Northeast Nigeria – which was almost empty- targeting civilians and homes, and used a female suicide bomber in Damaturu, in the Northeast, killing 7 people and injuring 32. Two days later, a suicide bomber linked to Boko Haram exploded at a restaurant in Potiskum, still in the Northeast, causing 4 victims and 5 injured. On February 17, Boko Haram was active also in the South, where it attacked the opposition’s meeting in Okrika, though killing no one. On the same day, Boko Haram clashed with the Chadian army in Dikwa, in the Northeast, and in a place on the road between Maiduguri and the Cameroonian border. There were 2 Chadian soldiers and 117 Boko Haram fighters dead as a result. One day later, Boko Haram detonated explosives at a military checkpoint outside Biu, still in the Northeast, causing 22 victims.
Furthermore, Boko Haram started expanding its area of action to neighbouring countries. Already in December 2014, the organization showed signals of its will to regionalize the conflict. Even earlier, in November 2014, every day gunshots attributed to Boko Haram were reported to have been heard in Cameroon, in the area bordering Nigeria. The situation was tangibly tense, and on 8 December, the BBC reported Boko Haram’s cross-border attacks into Cameroon, where militants tried to fly the caliphate’s flag. Moreover, Boko Haram attacked the military camp of Assighasia in Cameroon on 28 December, where they flew the Boko Haram’s flag. Within the framework of the regionalization of conflict, Boko Haram has taken a harsh and menacing posture towards the government of Cameroon. As mentioned above, on 18 January the terrorist organization kidnapped 80 people in Northern Cameroon, thus confirming the spill over of Boko Haram’s violent actions into countries neighbouring Nigeria. Additionally, Boko Haram killed 3 people and burnt 80 homes in this cross-border attack. The figures are estimates, as the government’s spokesman did not confirm the exact numbers. The underlying reasons for the attack are Boko Haram’s intention to widen its operating area and its desire to make Cameroon embrace Islam and repeal its Constitution. Boko Haram’s strategy has encompassed also cross-border attacks in Niger and Chad. On February 6, Boko Haram made an incursion into Diffa region in Niger, which repelled the terrorists. On February 8, Boko Haram staged an assault on Diffa again, by making a female suicide bomber blow herself up in the teeming pepper market. On February 13, Boko Haram assaulted the village of Ngouboua in Chad, causing 6 victims and injuring 3 people, and thus reiterating its intention to extend the conflict across the Nigerian border. In particular, it appears that Boko Haram wanted to take revenge against Chad, which joined the regional military effort against the terrorist organization.
Next to the discussion about the tangible chances that Boko Haram stands in an open-field conflict with different actors involved, it should be pointed out that this terrorist organization draws its force also from its opponents’ weaknesses. Especially focusing on Nigerian army, it should be – sadly – noted that Nigeria looks less and less like the “military” giant it was (or at least claimed to be) some years ago. The army suffers from being poorly paid and overstretched, and from mutinies. Civilians do not feel protected and feel alienated. The State, in general, is affected by rampant corruption, as it ranks 136th in the corruption ranking. The military response to Boko Haram has not been very effective so far, even if some positive facts have been registered. On February 17, Nigeria drove Boko Haram out of 12 towns and villages and on 20 February it attacked Boko Haram’s training camps in Northeast Borno, specifically in Sambisa Forests and parts of Gwoza. Ultimately, Nigeria’s President Jonathan Goodluck has received abrasive criticism about his elusive behaviour with respect to Boko Haram. The Guardian labels the government’s behaviour towards Boko Haram as “inept” and blames the government for providing unclear information. Lack of clear information was apparent also in the 18 February incident in Niger, where 36 people were killed. While some sources claim that the victims were Boko Haram’s fighters, who were killed in a Nigerian military operation, other sources allege that the Nigerian army may have mistaken funeral mourners for Boko Haram militants. The Nigerian government denied its involvement and opened an inquiry regarding the murky incident. The government’s weak response to Boko Haram may embolden the terrorist organization.
The (long-awaited) joint military intervention of neighbouring countries, Chad and Cameroon, aimed to restore the balance in the clashes by providing new forces to counter the terrorists. The Chadian army is allegedly the most powerful army in the region, experienced in antiterrorism activities in semi-desert territories. It went to Cameroon to respond to Boko Haram’s threats on January 18. Additionally, Chadian troops killed 200 Boko Haram fighters in Nigeria on 4 February, liberated some towns in the Northeast of Nigeria, and led a military exercise, with the help of the United States, coordinating 3000 soldiers coming from 28 African and Western states. Cameroon’s president Paul Biya caimed that “a global threat needs a global response”, and pledged to oppose Boko Haram. Indeed, the Cameroonian army attacked Boko Haram on February 16. Similarly, Niger’s president stated that “Niger will be the tomb of the Islamists” and promised to fight Boko Haram. Chad, Cameroon, and Niger, with Benin, decided to mobilize 8700 soldiers on February 7 against Boko Haram, and are part of the above-mentioned Multinational Joint Task Force, whose aim is to fight Boko Haram at present. More regional supra-national actors are engaged in the struggle against Boko Haram. The CEEAC (Communauté économique des Etats d’Afrique Centrale), composed by Chad, Congo, Gabon, the Central African Republic, and Equatorial Guinea, pledged to help militarily, financially, and humanitarianly the states affected by Boko Haram’s attacks. Even the African Union has planned to send troops to join the fight against Boko Haram. Therefore, it is evident that struggle against Boko Haram has taken on a regional dimension.
It should be noted that, as reported on February 20 by the NGO Réseau des défenseurs des droits humains en Afrique centrale (Redhac), Cameroon soldiers violated human rights during their operations against the terrorists. Cameroon has not commented on the fact yet. Remembering how Boko Haram (to some extent) consolidated its consensus by taking advantage of “collateral damage” and abuses by the Nigerian army, particular attention and prudence in counter-terror action is required by the new military actor taking the field against the extremists.
This complex picture leads to different threads of analysis.
In the first place, if the military action undertaken by neighbouring countries can be seen as beneficial for countering Boko Haram, it is also a clear signal of how Nigeria is weakened under both the military and political point of view, lacking the strength to provide a believable response to the terrorists’ action. Furthermore, it shows how the terrorist attacks evolved in a conflict, a conflict which has “officially” expanded from the “national” to the “regional” level: only the efficiency of the joint military efforts will show us how such clashes will be kept in control or will enlarge again their borders.
In the second place, this situation will effectively test how a larger-scale conflict can be tolerated by all parts involved, possibly influencing (via a sort of “imitation/demonstration effect”) present and future action of terrorist/separatist groups in or outside the region. An eventual success – or at least a successful long resistance – of Boko Haram against two or more joint regular armies could transform in a dangerous boost to the morale of other groups.
In the end, we should take in consideration the consequences of this situation on the upcoming election in Nigeria, which have been postponed from 15 February to 29 March. These elections are crucial to decide to whom Nigerians will entrust the difficult task of responding to Boko Haram. Unfortunately, these elections are marred by insecurity due to Boko Haram’s presence in some areas of Nigeria and to its threat to disrupt the vote. Indeed, on February 17, Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau pledged to disrupt the elections in a video diffused through Twitter. He claimed that Allah would not allow the elections to take place. The increased intensity of Boko Haram’s operations, indeed, can be interpreted as the militants’ device to scare Nigerians and persuade them not to vote. Boko Haram, in fact, opposes elections, as it perceives them as part of the democratic process it vehemently obstacles. The International Crisis Group warns that elections will be anyway affected by inter-party tensions and inadequate preparation.
Authors: Marianna GRIFFINI, Giuliano LUONGO