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Terrorism in Nigeria appears to have no end in sight

Annual Nigerian presidential claims that terrorism is on the descendant are invariably wrong: the exact opposite is true.

Government promises notwithstanding, the terrorist threat to large swathes of northern Nigeria does not appear to be on its last legs: quite the contrary.

Many countries have a tradition whereby the head of state – be that a monarch, a president, a prime minister or whatever – gives an end of year speech or interview. Some of these are blatantly partisan whereby the leader brags about what his or her party achieved in the previous year, underscoring why they are in power and should continue to be so. They tend to be feel-good fluffy remarks on the whole.

This year of course was a little different. COVID-19 has ravaged the entire planet, undermined economies, killed millions and led to widespread lockdowns that have truly changed what we do and how we do it. Yep, 2021 has truly been an annus horribilus. It was hard to put a positive spin on anything that happened over the last twelve months.

Nigeria has a similar tradition of December pronouncements delivered by its president. Of interest to me and to my readers in a national security lens, however, are the many occasions on which the country’s head honcho says, quite categorically, that the terrorism scourge in the nation is on its way out.

Here are a few recent examples

  • 2015: Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan has said the tide has “definitely turned” against militant Islamists as regional forces recapture territory;
  • 2016: President Muhammadu Buhari announced that he had succeeded in his pledge, claiming that Boko Haram is now “technnically defeated“;
  • 2018: Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari on Monday reiterated his administration’s stance that the Boko Haram terror group has been defeated;
  • 2019: Boko Haram now ‘substantially’ defeated, says Buhari;
  • 2020: President Buhari’s war on Boko Haram ‘far from over’ – government says it is “doing its best” to protect vulnerable citizens.

OK, that last one was a little off message when compared to previous ones. It is also probably the most accurate thing any Nigerian president has said in years.

Yes, I’d pick the one on the left over the ones on the right but I am not sure who has the upper hand. (Photo: Within Nigeria)

So, how is the ‘war’ on Boko Haram going?

Not well.

Here are a few stories from Nigerian and other media from the Christmas period alone

  • Many persons are feared dead as gunmen suspected to be Boko Haram terrorists on Saturday night (December 26) attacked three communities in Borno State: the “insurgents” came in about 10 gun trucks and began to fire indiscriminately at anything within sight;
  • According to a Nigerian academic Boko Haram and other criminal elements have constituted themselves into authority and formed a government within a government in the country’s north;
  • “Coordinated and simultaneous attacks” on Christmas eve in Adamawa state left an unspecified number of civilians dead and injured including a 90 -year old man who was killed with his house set ablaze; and
  • The kidnap of 344 schoolboys in northwest Nigeria was initially thought to be the work of Islamist terrorists but some government officials now claim it was the result of inter-communal feuding over cattle theft, grazing rights and water access.

This last point, even if it is inaccurate (Nigerian authorities often dismiss attacks carried out by Boko Haram and ascribe them to other violent actors), raises another destabilising aspect of life in northern Nigeria. There has indeed been a longstanding dispute between ethnic groups that engage in cattle herding and those that are farmers. The latter despise when the animals of the former trample all over their crops. In any event, disagreements over land and water use have led to violence and massacres on both sides. I am fairly certain you would not call this ‘terrorism’ per se, but it is of concern.

As if that were not enough there is also dissent within the main terrorist group. Boko Haram was originally seen as an offshoot of Al Qaeda (AQ), dating back to the late 2000s. Now, there is a faction that says it is affiliated with Islamic State (ISIS) and calls itself Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP). To my mind none of this matters as they are all Islamist terrorists who subscribe to the same underlying violent ideology.

One more thing.

Boko Haram has been spreading its attacks in recent years into neighbouring countries: Chad, Cameroon and Benin are the most often cited. None of these nations are equipped to deal with this threat: Cameroon is also dealing with a civil war in the country’s south- and northwest (where Boko Haram attacks have occurred) between the Francophone majority and the Anglophone minority.

The bottom line of all of this is that terrorism is not on the wane in Nigeria and is highly unlikely to be so any time soon. Christmas platitudes aside, terrorists, and other violent actors, will rule the roost in the country’s northern states (and elsewhere) for the foreseeable future. Presidents will continue to boast, every December, that “victory is around the corner.”

And they will continue to be wrong.


By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. and Programme Director for the Security, Economics and Technology (SET) hub at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute (PDI). Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of five books on terrorism.

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