Fulan Nasrullah is a national security policy advisor, based in Nigeria. He is a founder of Conflict Studies And Analysis Project. He sometimes tweets via @fulannasrullah.

Conflict Studies And Analysis Project’s content does not contain information of a classified or otherwise official nature, neither does the content represent the position of any governmental or non governmental entity.

Summary: While the current campaign, comprising Deep Punch I&II, of the Nigerian Armed Forces in Northern Borno have increased pressure on the insurgent groups in the area, limited resources diverted to staunch the increasing flow of instability in the Northwest and North Central parts of Nigeria,  coupled with insurgent resilience, strategic miscalculations and regional partner weakness, may ultimately prolong the current strategic stalemate at the detriment of the Nigerian State, or return the initiative to the insurgents by creating gaps that they can exploit.

Text: In 2015, after a regional conventional offensive weakened greatly most rebel groups in the Lake Chad region, and provided cause for the surviving core of the largest group -led by Abubakar Shekau which pledged allegiance to the Islamic State Group- to carry out a carefully planned organised retreat into territories it considered necessary to ensure its viable survival, as it shifted into guerrilla warfare mode.

Despite a successful stepping up of the pressure on insurgent-held territories especially in Northern Borno, neither the Nigerian Armed Forces nor the militaries of the other regional states are in a position to force a conclusive military victory over the insurgencies in the Lake Chad, propaganda claims to the contrary[1]. There is however a possibility that errors in strategic thinking, and growing instability in other parts of Nigeria, which cumulatively are weakening the capacity of the Nigerian military to maintain the volume of pressure necessary to uphold the status quo -which is a military stalemate on the strategic plane- thus potentially creating dangerous openings for expansion by the insurgents.

Unable to deliver a knockout blow to both Abubakar Shekau led Jamaa’atu Ahlis-Sunnati Lid-Da’wati Wal-Jihad, and  Abu Mus’ab Al-Barnawi  led West African Province of the Islamic State, the Lake Chad states have individually begun to modify their various strategies. After two years of trying and failing to push these groups out of areas in which they have entrenched themselves and which they consider core territories, the Lake Chad states have firstly separately and then collectively evolved their strategy into containing the insurgency in these core areas (thereby de facto ceding these territories), ideally depopulating them of as many civilians as possible (who would then be confined to fortified camps and towns) and then turning them into free-fire zones in which any living being is a legitimate target[2]. The success of such a strategy is not apparent from a counter-insurgency perspective especially when comparisons are made with the French Indochina War, the Soviet-Afghan War, and the Mozambican Civil War. However, even from the point of view of the proponents of this particular strategic approach, a key requirement for it to have a chance at succeeding, is availability of  adequate manpower, firepower, and aerial assets.

In this strategic approach, soldiers, police with  paramilitary and vigilante groups would secure urban areas in liberated areas, while soldiers and vigilantes would secure and defend fortified population containment camps, outposts and garrison fortress towns surrounded by insurgent controlled countryside. Special forces operators/conventional battalion-sized units backed by aerial assets would manoeuvre and conduct terrain sweeps, hunting and eliminating insurgent fighting groups, with artillery fire called in when necessary to neutralise entrenched enemy positions etc.

However, the Nigerian Army which has the largest capacity of the regional states, is stretched thin putting 40,000+ troops, representing most of its combat strength, to secure the three states with insurgent presence(Borno, Yobe, Adamawa) in Northeast Nigeria -which together have a land area of 140,218 sqkms or nearly five times the size of Belgium- backed by over 30,000 vigilantes in the Civilian Joint Task Force (a local vigilante outfit) and far lesser numbers of Policemen. Implementing such a strategy whose aim is to fix and then gradually finish off the insurgents in the Sambisa Forest Area, Northern Borno, Diffa, the Mandara Mountains-Gwoza Hills, and Cameroon’s Far North and the Lake Chad Islands, would require far more than what is now available to either the Nigerian Army or its regional allies.

The vast amount of terrain involved, the difficult topography, coupled with enemy defences, along with substantial number of enemy fighting forces, means that blockading effectively these areas, and depopulating of as much of the civilian population, and then securing the containment camps and garrison towns, will require a massive growth in the combat manpower deployed in the theatre. However while we are seeing operations to prepare for fortifying the projected garrison towns in and containment camps in Northeast Nigeria, and the Chadian and Cameroonian militaries are trying to establish or reinforce blockade positions on their own sides of the border, we are not seeing the necessary increase in manpower and equipment. Rather what is apparent is a gradual decrease in the amount of troops deployed, in Nigeria, Cameroon, and Chad as other national security situations outside the theatre demand troop reallocation.

A growing inter-ethnic herders-farmers conflict is fast expanding in North Central Nigeria, needing ever more levels of troop deployments to keep a lid on the situation there. Also, instability in rural Northwest Nigeria has within the past year expanded with more troops and rotary-wing aerial assets needed to be diverted to deal with the heavily armed bandits and rustling militias operating in the Kamuku-Birnin Gwari axis of Zamfara and Kaduna States. Also political instability in the Southeast, along with operations to repel attempts by Niger-Deltan militants to expand their area of operations into the creeks of Lagos and Ogun States, have also necessitated more troop and aerial reallocations from the Northeast theatre, while recruitment of new soldiers has not in anyway matched with the increased commitments.

In Cameroon, political instability and a growing insurgency in the English-speaking Southwestern part of the country, is forcing a reduction of military manpower and equipment assigned to the Far North theatre, in favour of increased militarisation of the Anglophone crisis. While Chad on the other hand is focusing on stabilising its positions relative to the Libyan crisis, Niger is more focused on the threats from Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghrib on its border with Mali to which it is allocating more and more of its already inadequate resources, at the expense of the Diffa theatre.

Together, these situations distracting from the Lake Chad conflict, means that unless there’s a significant uptick in troop levels in the theatre, insurgent organisations would have the pressure on them reduced, and instead of being blockaded, fixed and finished off, as those behind the various strategies of the regional states are hoping, they would have enough breathing space to gradually dial-up the scale of their threat at the operational level, while having the strategic balance shift a bit in their favour.

Another gap created from the regional states’ own miscalculations, is the lack of shared interests amongst the Lake Chad countries, which fuels a lack of cooperation in intelligence sharing, strategic planning etc. For Chad and Cameroon, the strategic calculus differs greatly from that of Nigeria on one hand, and Niger on the other. Chad is comfortable with confining the insurgents to the islands of the Lake Chad, as long as they do not manage to attack the mainland. Chad also needs a secure logistics corridor through Northern Cameroon from the Cameroonian port of Douala, however this issue which is an existential one for landlocked Chad with Northeast Nigeria largely unsafe for cargo transport, is not so for Yaounde which places a high priority on preventing a growing secessionist movement in the English-speaking Southwest Cameroon, from posing a viable threat to its territorial integrity. Diffa is not so much a strategic priority for both Niger and Chad (Niger places more focus on its border with Mali, and migration control into Libya and thus Europe), while for Nigeria, not securing and eliminating insurgent safe havens in the Lake Chad islands and Diffa, will ensure Northern Borno and Yobe remain permanently at risk. This wide gap in priorities, coupled with lingering distrust and suspicions, ensures that there’s ineffective coordination of plans, weak intelligence sharing etc between the Lake Chad states.

Any future turnaround of the current situation from a strategic stalemate with both sides unable to deliver a knockout blow, into a strategic victory for the Lake Chad countries, will require an understanding of the insurgencies’ ideological framework, an understanding of insurgent logistics, better intelligence gathering and sharing, and consensus positions on the strategic direction of the conflict, along with more investments into their own capabilities by the regional states. An awareness of consequences for regional stability (which is currently lacking) without restriction to any one country, should the insurgents gain the operation latitude to regain the initiative, must be taken into cognisance by the regional states and their international partners.

 

 

End Notes:

[1] Daily Trust (February 13, 2018) “Shekau On The Run, Dressed In Hijab, Says Army”. Retrieved from:

https://www.dailytrust.com.ng/boko-haram-leader-shekau-on-the-run-dressed-in-hijab-says-army.html

[2] Carsteen, Paul and Lanre, Ola (December 1, 2017) “Nigeria Puts Fortress Towns At Heart Of New Boko Haram Strategy”, Reuters. Retrieved from:

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-nigeria-security-borno/nigeria-puts-fortress-towns-at-heart-of-new-boko-haram-strategy-idUSKBN1DV4GU

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