A s his self-imposed deadline of defeating Boko Haram by the end of 2016 drew near, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari congratulated the army on “crushing” the group once and for all. But in an online video posted just a few days later its leader, Abubakar Shekau, warned that “the battle is just beginning”.
Boko Haram, whose name translates to ‘Western education is forbidden’, made international headlines in April 2014 when it abducted 300 schoolgirls from Chibok, and again a year later when it swore allegiance to Islamic State (IS). It has however been active in northeastern Nigeria since 2002, killing over 20,000 people, displacing 2.3 million others and causing food and health crises in Borno state.
The group's defeat was announced after Nigerian security forces seized its base and supposedly final stronghold in Borno’s 500-square-mile Sambisa forest, where temperatures hit 48C, vegetation reaches two metres high and poisonous reptiles can kill you if jihadis do not. After months of fighting, troops captured Boko Haram’s camp deep in this former game reserve.
But the government’s victory was short-lived. As with IS in Libya, porous borders and weak infrastructure allowed Boko Haram to regroup elsewhere. In the past, fleeing fighters have also disappeared into local communities only to re-emerge at a later date.
It will take more than military might to quash the group, not least because extreme deprivation in northeastern Nigeria makes recruitment relatively easy. Aghedo Iro, an academic at the University of Benin, told The World Weekly that “reputable clerics should be used to provide counter-narratives to insurgent propaganda”, human rights violations by Nigerian forces needed to stop and “those whose rights have been violated... need to be compensated”.
In Borno state, a poor and divided region, it will take more than firepower to defeat one of the world's deadliest terrorist groups.