Boko Haram fighters driven away from northern Nigeria
DAMASAK: Boko Haram fighters have
been driven from thousands of square miles of territory across northern
Nigeria, dealing a significant blow to the Islamist movement’s ambition to
carve out an African “Caliphate”.
As recently as January, Boko Haram
controlled about 20,000 square miles of Borno and Yobe states, ruling a domain
the size of Belgium with a population of at least 1.8 million. Within this
area, the Islamist gunmen re-imposed slavery and massacred thousands of
Yet in the last fortnight, a
counter-offensive by the armies of Chad and Nigeria has deprived Boko Haram of
much of its gains. Chadian forces carried out the most effective operation,
sweeping along the western shore of Lake Chad and retaking towns like Baga and
Doron Baga, which had been largely destroyed by the insurgents.
Meanwhile, the Nigerian army’s 7th
Division struck eastwards from Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, and
recaptured Bama, the second largest city in the area. Aided by mercenaries from
South Africa, Ukraine and the Czech Republic – who are believed to have piloted
attack helicopters and operated advanced weapons systems – the Nigerian forces
wrested back a large expanse of territory and lifted the threat to Maiduguri,
which was previously under regular attack. In all, about 30 towns and villages
are believed to have been cleared.
“The major strategic change – and
it’s a positive one – is that either the fall of Maiduguri or the Nigerian army
being forced to abandon it is now very unlikely,” said Andrew Pocock, the
British High Commissioner in Nigeria. “So a disaster of the magnitude of losing
a state capital has been averted.”
Boko Haram still controls the town of
Gwoza, found beside the Mandara Mountains on the eastern frontier with
Cameroon, where the movement has its headquarters. The gunmen also hold much of
the surrounding area.
The Nigerian army will have to decide
whether to try to retake Gwoza before the rainy season begins next month.
Having protected their country’s border from attack by Boko Haram, the Chadian
army may also choose to leave Nigeria.
The question will be whether
Nigeria’s army is able to keep the gains. “There’s no question there’s been a
positive change in the strategic balance, but it’s still tactically quite
difficult and holding the gains is not something that can be taken for
granted,” added Mr Pocock.
The arrival of Chadian forces in
Borno state coincided with the delivery of new helicopters and armoured
vehicles to Nigerian units - and the recruitment of foreign mercenaries. These
factors tipped the military balance against Boko Haram.
But hardly any of the 1.5 million
people displaced by the gunmen have been confident enough to return home. The
towns recaptured during the offensive are still largely empty.
Virginia Comolli, the author of
"Boko Haram: Nigeria's Islamist Insurgency", questioned whether the
victories were sustainable. “It’s only a military approach: there is very
little being done to tackle the underlying grievances in the area,” she said.
“It might be that they’re winning a battle, but I’m not sure they’re winning
President Goodluck Jonathan, who
faces re-election on Saturday, has been under intense pressure to deal with
Boko Haram. Even after their recent defeats, however, the Islamists remain
capable of launching suicide attacks in Nigerian cities. Their gunmen still
hold more than 200 schoolgirls who were captured during a raid on the town of
Chibok almost one year ago.