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Published On: Wed, Mar 5th, 2014

Why are Boko Haram fighters successful?

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boko-haram-groupBy John Campbell

Boko Haram, the diffuse, apparently grass roots insurrection, has undertaken a current wave of carnage in Nigeria’s northeast. Several of the most recent incidents involve government security forces unaccountably not at their posts, allowing Boko Haram freedom of movement. The governor of Borno state publicly said that Boko Haram fighters outgun government forces. Over the past few weeks I have been hearing from a number of credible interlocutors that Boko Haram fighters are indeed better than government forces. They suggest that Boko Haram has not crumbled to the Nigerian military because: Boko Haram fighters often are, indeed, better armed and equipped than the government’s forces.

Boko Haram acquires its weapons and equipment from attacks on government armories as well as, presumably, other sources (Nigeria is awash with weapons); and never leaves behind its dead, or its weapons. It also stages high-profile jailbreaks to free its captive operatives. It provides payments for widows and children of its fighters. Boko Haram fighters are regularly paid. Finally, at least some Boko Haram fighters believe in their “cause;” the achievement of justice for the poor through Sharia. These factors can also be identified among other successful fighters in various parts of the world.

As for Boko Haram funding, the amounts distributed by them presumably are quite small. Boko Haram has been involved in bank robberies and kidnappings for ransom. Many of the latter incidents go unreported, so it is difficult to judge what the magnitude might be, but they are a valuable domestic source of revenue. I have seen little to no credible evidence that a significant source of funding comes from abroad, except for various cross-border criminal activities, including smuggling. The same is true of the weaponry that Boko Haram employs. I have seen little evidence that weapons stockpiles from Libya have a transformative presence in Nigeria. Boko Haram attacks certainly employ a quantity of weapons, but their sophistication does not appear to give them a noticeable advantage.

On the other hand, government forces are allegedly poorly equipped, do not receive their pay on time, and do not receive regular medical services. Pensions paid to widows can be erratic. There were also complaints about inadequate equipment and pay during the campaign in Mali last year when Nigerian soldiers were reportedly forced to ask for food from local Malian communities. They were also restricted to manning checkpoints in the capital region because they lacked equipment to deploy further afield. Muslim Rights Concern raised such shortcomings in northern Nigeria, as I cited in a blog post on February 27, 2014.

Some observers suggest that government forces simply run away when Boko Haram approaches–that is why the security check points are not manned. Their motivation is fear–well placed fear given that Boko Haram has a long tradition of killing any person in the security services that it can.

Traditionally, the policy of the Nigerian government has been to not assign soldiers or police to service in their native regions. Some of my interlocutors suggest this remains true for officers deployed to the regions under the state of emergency, but over-stretched operational requirements and personnel shortages have meant modification to this policy with respect to foot soldiers. Now, it was suggested, many soldiers in the north are from the north. As such, they are particularly fearful of Boko Haram, both from first-hand knowledge and, presumably, fear for their families.

Such points about the strengths of Boko Haram fighters and the weaknesses of the government’s security forces are credible. I would caution that the factors of Boko Haram strength most likely apply to the most ideologically or religiously committed of Islamist fighters, not to the criminal or other score-settling elements, or the political factions that are likely part of the general insurgency. Similarly, the northeast of Nigeria is geographically expansive. Conditions among the government’s security personnel likely vary from place to place.

John Campbell, a former US ambassador to Nigeria, is a blogger


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