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Nigeria’s new president faces a large uphill battle with Boko Haram that involves more than just military tactics

The Crucial First Steps in Buhari’s Fight Against Boko Haram

June 25th, 2015

By Lauren Stauffer – Junior Fellow

On 29 May, Muhammadu Buhari was sworn-in as the new president of Nigeria in the nation’s capital of Abuja.  Not only did the ceremony mark the first peaceful transfer of power between rival parties in the country’s history, but Buhari also took to the stage to announce that the struggle against Boko Haram, whom he calls “a mindless, godless group who are as far away from Islam as one can think of,” is at the top of his political agenda.  This declaration follows months of campaigning whereby the retired general used his military background to appeal to citizens concerned with the threatening presence of Boko Haram.  Even though he previously served as Nigeria’s leader during a dictatorship in 1983 that has come to be characterized by its “war on indiscipline” and numerous human rights violations, many Nigerians have renewed their faith in Buhari due to the fact that they are searching for a leader who will firmly address the nation’s continuing problems, such as terrorism.  In his swearing-in speech, the newly elected president recognized the “enormous challenges” that he has inherited from his predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, and vowed to “tackle them head on” while promising that “Nigerians will not regret that they have entrusted responsibility to us”.

Since Buhari became president, Boko Haram, a radical Islamist terrorist group who looks to secure strongholds in northeast Nigeria to establish a caliphate, has significantly increased their attacks through the use of fatal assaults and suicide bombings.  The day after Buhari’s swearing-in, Boko Haram attacked a mosque in Maiduguri, killing at least twenty-three people.  Additionally, on 2 June, a suicide bomber in Borno State, the biggest city in the northeast region, killed twenty to fifty individuals.  Officials believe that Boko Haram has intensified their attacks in a direct response to Buhari’s aggressive claims presented in his inaugural speech.  According to Human Rights Watch, these recent killings can be added to the total of at least 1,000 civilians who have been killed thus far in 2015 by Boko Haram.  In addition to a rising death toll, the terrorist group is responsible for displacing more than a million people over the past six years and, thus, is a true threat to Nigeria’s and the region’s security.  Although Nigerian security forces, under past President Jonathan, claimed that Boko Haram was in retreat, the recent attacks in the northeast prove that the terrorist group maintains a threatening presence.  In a video that appeared on SITE Intelligence’s website on 2 June, a Boko Haram spokesman rebutted the military’s claims that the Islamist group are in retreat and insisted that Boko Haram would regain control of crucial territory in the northeast.

Although Buhari’s administration has yet to announce a specific strategy to defeat Boko Haram, President Buhari is quickly breaking away from his predecessor’s denial and hesitance towards dealing with the group.  In his inaugural speech, Buhari recognizes both the large threat of Boko Haram and the previous mistakes of the military, including its role in many human rights abuses.  During his initial days in office, the president announced that the military campaign’s center of operations would be moved from Nigeria’s capital to the northeastern city of Maiduguri, thus overcoming a frequent criticism of President Jonathan, who allowed his military generals to reside in the safety of the capital, as opposed to in the northeast where the majority of fighting took place.  Buhari also has directly opposed Goodluck Jonathan’s persistent minimizing of neighboring countries’ involvement in the fight by announcing that he plans to visit nearby Chad and Niger to recognize their contributions, such as supplying “arms [that] have played a decisive role this year in combating Boko Haram”, and strategize.  The president has stated that he is convinced that the best approach to fighting Boko Haram “would be to work within the framework of the Lake Chad Basin Commission, LCBC, to mobilize collective support to fight…[and to engage] the member states of the LCBC to better coordinate the strategies and tactics in fighting the insurgency in the region”.  Buhari’s argues that his approach to overcoming the terrorists “can be enhanced through complimentary regional and continental efforts”, such as the Multinational Joint Task Force whose operation against Boko Haram even includes the United States.  U.S. Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of African Affairs, Linda Thomas-Green, announced from the African Union Summit on 15 June that the U.S. will be contributing $5 billion to the coalition of African countries, which includes Nigeria, Chad, Niger, and Cameroon.  According to Thomas-Green, “we have been working with Nigeria as well as the African countries to address their concerns about Boko Haram because we don’t see this as just a Nigerian problem” and that the United States, who has begun discussing counterterrorism tactics with Buhari, would “love to work with the new administration to see how we might increase the level of support to Nigeria”.  Thus, President Buhari has broken away from the governing of his predecessor and appears to be seriously dedicated to winning the fight against Boko Haram through his recent militaristic maneuvers and strategic engagements.

Unlike Muhammadu Buhari, Goodluck Jonathan served as a president who rejected assistance from United Nations’ forces in the fight against Boko Haram and who was frequently criticized for responding too slowly to the Islamist terrorist’s actions, which was best exemplified in the president’s delayed response to the 2014 kidnapping of 219 school girls from Chibok in the northeast Borno State.  Although Mr. Jonathan did inherit a national military overrun with corruption and weakened by a lack of weaponry, the past president did little to stop the military’s human rights abuses or strengthen it by engaging with international actors.  In 2014, when the atrocities of Boko Haram were garnering international attention, the United States donated $6.3 million to the Nigerian military, but the possibility of future contributions and/or support were greatly hindered by ongoing tensions with Jonathan.  Ultimately, these mistakes, coupled with the continually threatening presence of Boko Haram and a national economy in decline due to a struggling oil industry, cost Goodluck Jonathan the presidential election in which Buhari received 15.4 million votes as compared to Jonathan’s 13.3 million.  Although Jonathan tried to justify the military’s failures in March 2015 by stating that “we never expected that [Boko Haram would] build up that kind of capacity.  We under-rated their external influence”, Nigerians have already turned their attention to the future fight against Boko Haram.  Hussaini Monguno, the security adviser to the governor of Borno State, claims that “Buhari has sent a very strong signal to Boko Haram and the military that Boko Haram cannot continue killing innocent people, and [that] the military cannot remain in faraway Abuja”.  Therefore, in the eyes of local citizens and the international community, Buhari has successfully transitioned away from the failing and weak tactics of his predecessor.

However, Buhari’s first steps in the fight against Boko Haram are crucial in order to prevent the terrorists from using the killings over the past few weeks to build momentum and gain territory in the northeast.  Although transferring the operations center to Maiduguri and enlisting the assistance of a Multinational Joint Taskforce are beneficial to the government’s cause, Buhari must craft a clear strategy to provide the military with a sense of direction and strong leadership to enable it to engage with Boko Haram on the battlefield and counteract any hit-and-run tactics utilized by the terrorist group.  Additionally, Carl LeVan, an expert on Nigeria at American University, argues that Buhari must consider not only the terrorism that Boko Haram imparts on citizens, but also the Islamic group’s societal impact.  LeVan states that “the Buhari administration is going to have to think about the center of the fight not just in geographic terms…[but consider] what is really the heart of the battle?  Is it retaking Gwoze and other Boko Haram strongholds…or is it tackling the broader message about the role of Islam in a multicultural Nigeria?”  Thus, Nigeria’s new president faces a large uphill battle with Boko Haram that involves more than just military tactics.  However, President Buhari appears to be stepping in the right direction by forgoing his predecessor’s strategy and instead, engaging with regional and international actors while also preparing to aggressively face Boko Haram in the northeast.

About Lauren Stauffer

Lauren Stauffer is an Associate Fellow in the Security and Defence division. She is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Connecticut where she is studying foreign relations history, specifically in regards to U.S.-NATO relations, and human rights. Lauren received a B.A. in History (Hons) from Vassar College and wrote her senior thesis on the 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo. During her undergraduate career, she also studied abroad at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Previously, Lauren has worked at the Roosevelt Institute’s Four Freedoms Center and served as a Vassar Ford Scholar. Lauren’s research interests include transatlantic relations, Western security, humanitarian intervention, multilateral institutions, human rights, and post-conflict reconciliation.