From One Campaign to the Next: Buhari and the Battle against Boko Haram – By Jacob Zenn


President elect Muhammadu Buhari will have to make progress fighting Boko Haram to justify campaign promises.

On April 1, Nigeria’s electoral commission announced that Muhammadu Buhari had won Nigeria’s presidential election. This was monumental for the country. For the first time in the Nigeria’s history, one elected leader succeeded another elected leader. Moreover, that a free and fair election with few reports of violence could take place amid the ongoing Boko Haram insurgency was an additional feat.

Although Boko Haram did not live up to leader Abubakar Shekau’s threats to disrupt the elections, the group was nonetheless a major point of debate between supporters of Buhari and incumbent candidate Goodluck Jonathan during campaign season. Supporters of Buhari often charged Jonathan with a lackluster effort in combating Boko Haram. They pointed to the Commander-in-Chief’s inability to rescue the 250 girls Boko Haram kidnapped in Chibok and Shekau’s declaration of a Caliphate in northeastern Nigeria as examples of Jonathan’s weakness on the military front. Buhari, who was a military leader of Nigeria in the 1980s, promised to defeat Boko Haram where Jonathan could not.

Some of Jonathan’s supporters, however, alleged that Buhari and other northern Muslims aided Boko Haram for the purpose of tarnishing Jonathan’s image. They also countered arguments about Jonathan’s military ineffectiveness by pointing to the offensive the government launched against Boko Haram (after the original election date was postponed) on February 14 as evidence that Jonathan was able to defeat Boko Haram. This offensive, which benefited from Chadian, Nigerien and Cameroonian troop deployments in Nigeria’s borderlands, drove Boko Haram from most of the towns it occupied in northeastern Nigeria, including its “˜capital’ of Gwoza, which Boko Haram renamed “˜Dar al-Hikma’ (“˜House of Wisdom’ in Arabic).

With his victory in the election, the time has now come for Buhari to act on his campaign pledges to “˜crush’ Boko Haram and vindicate his supporters. Buhari will be judged on whether he makes progress in the counter-insurgency effort and he will be held accountable in five years. If the Boko Haram insurgency continues unabated, it will be difficult for Buhari to argue that he deserves a new term as president.

There are several reasons why Buhari may be successful in countering the Boko Haram insurgency in the next five years. Yet, Boko Haram, which is more resilient and adaptable that most observers anticipated, can also employ tactics to stay relevant in Nigeria and the sub-region. This is increasingly the case given the potential benefits to Boko Haram of Shekau’s pledge of allegiance to Islamic State leader Abubakar al-Baghdadi (and al-Baghdadi’s acceptance of the pledge) and Islamic State’s enthusiasm for Boko Haram as its largest affiliate.

Buhari’s Advantages

One of Buhari’s main campaign promises was his pledge to end corruption in Nigeria. Under previous administrations, funds for the military were siphoned into the pockets of elites, which led to a hole in funding for procurement of equipment, weapons and training for Nigerian troops. This also led to the demoralization of troops who were not adequately prepared to combat Boko Haram, which received many high-grade weapons from the stockpiles of former Libyan leader Muammar al-Qadaffi.

In addition, as a former General, Buhari may be more closely attuned to the demands of the military and the sentiments of its troops. A full-scale anti-corruption and accountability drive could lead to improved morale among Nigerian troops and better relations with international partners like the US and UK. Revived relations and trust between Nigeria and allies abroad could open opportunities for greater military-to-military collaboration; from intelligence-sharing on Boko Haram’s international networks to provision of new weapons to counter the group.

Another factor that may provide a boost to Buhari’s capacity to combat Boko Haram relates to his identity. As a Muslim from northern Nigeria, Buhari’s victory in the election will likely assuage concerns – whether real or perceived – among other Muslim northerners that the democratic system leaves them marginalized from the center of power in the country. This, in turn, could undercut some of the support base of Boko Haram in northern Nigeria. Goodluck Jonathan’s landslide victory over Buhari in 2011 took place amid allegations of fraud and post-election violence. However, the success of Nigerian democracy in 2015 shows that a Muslim or a Christian can win the presidential election. Moreover, the smooth election undermines the narrative of Boko Haram and other extremists that democracy is futile for Muslims and that only an idealized Islamic State can empower them.

Boko Haram’s advantages

Even with several factors working in Buhari’s favor, Boko Haram will still be a threat to Nigeria and the sub-region. One of its advantages is its alliance with Islamic State, which was launched with Shekau’s pledge to al-Baghdadi on March 7, al-Baghdadi’s spokesman’s acceptance of it on March 12, and celebrations of the alliance by affiliates of Islamic State from al-Raqqa, Syria, to “˜Euphrates Province‘ on the Iraqi-Syrian border, to “˜Tigris Province‘ in Iraq, to Tripoli, Libya, to Jund al-Khalifa’s bases in Central Algeria. In the weeks prior to this pledge, Boko Haram had already been increasing its French language propaganda, especially on Twitter and videos released on jihadist websites. This suggested that Boko Haram was expanding operations into the territories of Nigeria’s French-speaking neighbours, such as Niger, Chad and Cameroon. Islamic State also renamed and re-branded Boko Haram as the “˜Islamic State in West Africa.’

What this means for Nigeria is that even if the offensive against Boko Haram drives militants from bases in Borno, they will likely use other countries in West Africa for recruitment, logistics and as hideouts. Islamic State has, in turn, already activated its human and online networks to encourage fighters from West Africa who cannot travel to other Islamic State wilayas in Libya or the Middle East to go to Nigeria and join Islamic State in West Africa. In the future, Islamic State may also seek to leverage West African members not only as foreign fighters deployed in West Africa, but also in Europe if it can gain traction among the West African diaspora.

Since launching the “˜jihad’ in 2010, Boko Haram has also proven adept at biding its time and then re-launching attacks when the security forces let down their guard. This is what happened several months after the government launched a State of Emergency offensive against Boko Haram in May 2013. Boko Haram may repeat this tactic now in the wake of the pre-election offensive and wait until Buhari focuses on domestic or international issues and then re-activate cells throughout the country.

It will be up to Buhari as the new Commander-in-Chief to keep up the momentum against Boko Haram if the militants lie low and do not carry out attacks for the first several months of his presidency. Moreover, it will be a test of his diplomatic tact to see how well he can coordinate Nigeria’s counter-insurgency campaign with the country’s neighbours and international partners to prevent financing, recruitment and arms from flowing to Boko Haram from Islamic State affiliates throughout West Africa.

Having won the presidential election and returned to a position of national leadership for the first time in nearly three decades, Muhammadu Buhari is faced with a military challenge, but this time he will be in civilian shoes. Waging a counter-insurgency campaign against Boko Haram while also fulfilling his campaign pledges to root out corruption and enhance Nigerian democracy will form the core components of Buhari’s legacy. Fortunately for him, fulfilling these two goals on anti-corruption and democracy will also be crucial to his success in providing the military with the resources and narrative it needs to once and for all “crush” Boko Haram and its violent ideology.

Jacob Zenn is an analyst of African and Eurasian Affairs at The Jamestown Foundation in Washington DC. In 2013, he provided testimony to the U.S. Congress on “The Continuing Threat of Boko Haram and Ansaru.” He writes in his capacity as an independent expert and his views do not engage any of the policies or positions of current institutional clients.

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6 thoughts on “From One Campaign to the Next: Buhari and the Battle against Boko Haram – By Jacob Zenn

  1. If there was ever a Nigerian Leader who had a chance of wining the war against Boko Haram and the other war against corruption, that man would be Buhari. He is also not in it for material gains, we all know him and that changes the political landscape against the pack of wolves who ran for office this year. The time for looting and plunder is over; the time for serious work has come.

  2. Nice analysis but hard to control a military that has historically and continues to, for the most part, be headed by Muslims of N NE stock and part of or beholden to the Northern Oligarchy and shari’a 12 senators and governors, financiers and supporters of terrorism. They only care about lining their own pockets. Please, don’t let the rhetoric fool you. GEJ started a program to integrate the Almajiri schools into a more Western education school system, so there wouldn’t be thousands upon thousands of underage youth begging in the streets on their “quest” for Quranic wisdom, far from home and under the tutelage of questionable mallams. The fact that there was even a need for that should tell something about the situation in the North. The Northern Oligarchy does not want the population educated and literate. The use Islam and illiteracy to keep their people in check, and if there is a bump in the road the whip or sword of shari’a keeps them cowed and docile for the most part. Look no further than Islam and the Northern Oligarchy to find the root of the problem. Nigerians and the SS SE SW have NOTHING to do with the North’s problems, they brought that upon themselves.

  3. As the Vice President to late Alh Yar’Adua, the Outgoing President Jonathan was given the challenge of managing his restive brothers in the Niger Delta. He did the assignment with clinical excellence and there has been unparalleled peace ever since. A few hundred barrels of crude is stolen daily but that is tolerable.
    I presume the relative calmness in the oil producing zone over the past 8 years is the reason you analysts assume that things would continue this way even now that Mr Jonathan has been rejected as incompetent by the complicity of the Hausa-Yoruba voters and their rogue leaders. You identified all the challenges of Buhari . You forgot a ‘Nigeria without oil’ the prospect of which is very high now that the Niger Delta Militants have vouched to return to the creeks after May 29. Buhari may, in old age, regret his second coming. I hope and pray that events will prove me wrong.

  4. Anyway, we are at the lookout. I want buhari to be the president of Nigeria for now, reason because of corruption and boko haram of a thing. But if he failed to stop these two major problems Nigerians are facing, that means, he has a big problems. I will agree as they previous said, he buhari was the founder of boko haram with other muslim members. I hope, he should do what he said he will during his campaign for presidency.

  5. ITS NOT TRUE THAT “For the first time in the Nigeria’s history, one elected leader succeeded another elected leader.” That statement is NOT CORRECT. Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar (military) handed over to Chief (rtd Gen)Olusegun Obasanjo (civilian) in 1999, Olusegun Obasanjo handed over to Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar’adua (again civilian) in 2007, Yarádua died in Office in 2009 and was succeeded by his vice president Goodluck Jonathan (in accordance with the constitution). The only significant change here is that Goodluck Jonathan is the 1st civilian leader to conduct National elections adjudged to be largely free, fair and credible by foreign (EU, AU, ECOWAS) observers in the over 50 years since Nigeria’s independence. President Goodluck Jonathan is the 1st Nigerian leader to concede in an election after just a single term of 4years in office (though he held out the remaining two years of his late predecessor (Yar’adua).

  6. Historic moment in Nigeria as President accepts election defeat.
    Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan during his time in executive office was a leader administratively incompetent as well as indifferent to the national social civic publics which unfortunately created a climate of economic and social civic despair among the vast majority of Nigerians unable to participate in the wealth creation process. The terrorist organization Boko Haram was allowed to prosper with results tragic in extreme in the abduction of young girls who only wished to be educated and further exacerbated in the killings of many innocent men and women who were in harms way and denied the protection of the state.
    Goodluck Jonathan in accepting his civic electoral defeat with grace and dignity and offering to assist and participate in ensuring a peaceful productive transition of executive authority to the newly elected president has in a manner method transformative altered the African social civic political zeitgeist. This is Goodluck Jonathan’s finest hour! African Political Publics will remember him and give thanks as now the African political public calculus has been changed in a transformative ethos ensuring that all African Leaders must now conform and respect that the will of the people is supreme and ought ever not be compromised by personal egoist rent seeking crass preservation of power for powers sake.

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