The president needs to come to grips with the reality of the situation against the terrorist group and be more honest with Nigerians.
When the military cracked down on Mohammed Yusuf’s Islamic sect in 2009 leading to the death of hundreds, no one could have predicted the level of devastation it was about to birth.
The rejuvenated Boko Haram, under the brutal stewardship of Abubakar Shekau, embarked on a reign of terror that has resulted in the death of over 20,000 people and the displacement of over 2.5 million.
At the height of its powers, the terrorist group controlled about 20,000 square miles of territory spread across over 11 local government areas with a total population exceeding 1.7 million people.
Enter General Muhammadu Buhari
Boko Haram post-2015 presidential election
The fortunes of the terrorist group has suffered dramatically since Buhari was elected president in 2015, just as the man promised.
A bulk of the president’s campaign hinged on his promise to make Boko Haram disappear as the sect had grown to become one of the deadliest in the world only a couple of years ago.
The president excitedly beat the war drums and promised the Nigerian people that the sect would be a bad dream that would quickly be forgotten if he was elected.
He was, and Boko Haram’s grips on territories started to loosen drastically after an intense military campaign carried out by troops of Operation Lafiya Dole and armies of neighbouring countries.
In December 2016, the miilitary took a stab at the heart of Boko Haram’s Camp Zero base inside Sambisa Forest and declared victory.
President Buhari described the turn of event as the “final crushing of Boko Haram terrorists in their last enclave”.
While the administration considered the ‘defeat’ as the perfect Christmas gift for a nation that has been scarred with insecurity, the Nigerian public treated the news with scepticism.
It wasn’t misplaced.
In response to Buhari’s premature declaration, Shekau released a video where he declared a renewed war on the country, urging his followers to, “Kill all the infidels and detonate bombs everywhere, Yes! I want you to kill, slaughter and abduct.”
On January 7, 2017, at least five soldiers were killed during an attack by Boko Haram fighters on an army base in Buni Yadi, Yobe State.
Only a day later, two civilians in Borno State were killed in a residential area in the Kaleri area of Gwange after an attack by two female suicide bombers.
Hours prior to this, three suicide bombers, all male, attacked a military checkpoint in the area, killing themselves and a civilian fighter after one of their vests detonated.
These set the tone for a long bloody year of suicide bombings and several savage armed attacks on civilians and security personnel.
In what was one of the sect’s bloodiest attacks in 2017, at least 69 people, including soldiers and civilians, died after an ambush of an oil exploration team in the Magumeri area of Borno in July.
The attack was carried out by another faction of Boko Haram under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Barnawi. Three civilians were also abducted during the attack and have been in captivity ever since.
This happened just a month after an ambush attack by militants on a police convoy on the Maiduguri-Biu highway led to the death of three people and the abduction of 16 women, some of them police officers.
For Boko Haram, it was almost business as usual, with over 80 separate attacks that led to the death of hundreds.
The frequency of Boko Haram’s attacks in 2017 forced the president and members of his media team and the military top brass to dial back on their initial claims and start saying the group is “technically defeated”, a term the president first used in December 2015.
With every inquiry into the government’s success in fighting the insurgency, the term “technically defeated” keeps surfacing, with the government claiming that the group is only capable of attacking “soft” targets.
In his New Year’s Day address on Monday, January 1, 2017, the president insisted that “we have since beaten Boko Haram”, even though he also admitted that “isolated attacks still occur” because it’s impossible to “prevent determined criminals from committing terrible acts of terror” just as it happens in “even the best-policed countries” across the world.
Why Buhari needs to be more honest about Boko Haram’s ‘defeat’
There’s no doubt about the fact that President Buhari’s administration has made great strides in curbing the influence of Boko Haram from the menace that it was only a couple of years ago.
However, as many have pointed out, his administration may be making a significant mistake in exaggerating its success against the group.
One of President Buhari’s loudest campaign promises was his pledge to rescue all the kidnapped Chibok girls from the group’s grips.
Since he became president, his administration has negotiated the release of 103 of the schoolgirls in addition to the 60 that had escaped earlier.
In a recent report by the Wall Street Journal on that negotiation process, it was revealed that the president approved the payment of €3 million and five Boko Haram commanders to secure the release.
113 of the girls still remain in captivity while the president continues to insist that their captors don’t pose a significant threat anymore.
Despite the government’s claim that the group holds no sway anymore, they still have hundreds of captives who they exploit however they see fit.
On Monday, December 1, the army revealed that 700 people had just escaped from the custody of the group from the Lake Chad area where they were forced to work as farm labourers.
Two of them, who appeared to be underage girls, delivered babies at the military holding facility in Borno after their escape.
While the presidency clamours for the support of the Nigerian public in the war against Boko Haram, it’s not helping itself with what many consider a myopic appraisal of the situation.
This is why when it was announced that the Nigeria Governors’ Forum (NGF) had approved the withdrawal of $1 million from the Excess Crude Account (ECA) to strengthen the fight against Boko Haram, many cried foul play.
“Why do you need a staggering $1 million to fight an enemy that’s been defeated?” Nigerians questioned with raised brows.
The Federal Government was forced to explain that the fund also covered other security problems in the country, but the damage was already done.
Against a sense of what many consider a generally underwhelming performance by the Buhari administration, the presidency appears to want to claim every credit it can for itself, and the Boko Haram war is one of its biggest selling points as the 2019 general elections approach.
For good reason.
According to the 2017 Global Terrorism Index, Nigeria experienced an 80% drop in the number of deaths caused by terrorist attacks in 2016, the largest reduction in the world.
However, despite this monumental feat, if 2017 showed Nigerians anything, it’s that Boko Haram is still not yesterday’s news.
Every suicide bombing, especially with teenage girls, and every attack on a remote community makes the government’s victory claims ring hollow.
How do you explain to people in the northeast that the terrorist group their government keeps explaining is defeated still has the means to carry out attacks that are killing them by the dozens?
At this point, all it serves is appear to be a bold-faced deception against the reality that they continue to face.
While the president should take pride in his administration’s achievements in stabilising the country better than he met it, there’s still a lot of important work to be done before the word ‘defeat’ is considered, technical or not.