July 25, 2013
Nigeria has begun to pull back troops from peacekeeping missions in Mali and Darfur as its two-month-old offensive against Boko Haram militants begins to falter even as northern Nigerian extremists turn to soft targets to disrupt the efforts of security forces. Launched on May 14, the offensive has proved controversial from the start, with critics describing it as ineffective and shockingly casual in its regard for civilian lives.
JDF Patrol in Maiduguri
Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan’s order to withdraw Nigerian troops from Mali was attributed in some quarters to the replacement of a Nigerian by a Rwandan as the force commander of the peacekeeping force in Mali now that it has passed under UN control.  A Nigerian military source told a French news agency that the withdrawal was in response to the UN’s change of command for the Malian peacekeeping force: “A non-Nigerian was appointed as force commander while we are putting so much into the mission. So we think we can make better use of those people [i.e. Nigerian troops] at home than to keep them where they are not appreciated” (AFP, July 18). The leader of the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) since the formation of the force in January was Major-General Shehu Abdulkadir, who was joined by seven staff officers of the Nigerian Army in the AFISMA command (Leadership [Abuja], February 18; June 7). Last month, however, the Secretary General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, announced the appointment of Major General Jean Bosco Kazura of Rwanda as the new force commander of the UN’s Mission Multidimensionnelle Intégrée des Nations Unies pour la Stabilisation au Mali (MINUSMA), sidelining Nigeria’s Major-General Shehu Abdulkadir, who was the force commander of AFISMA from its inception in January 2013 (PANA [Dakar], July 19). Nigerian officers were also excluded from the MINUSMA posts of deputy force commander, head of mission and deputy head of mission.
However, Côte d’Ivoire president and ECOWAS chairman Alassane Ouattara said he had received a letter from President Jonathan saying the withdrawal was in response to the need for infantry to cope with the domestic situation in Nigeria (Daily Trust [Lagos], July 19; Nigerian Tribune, July 19). A Nigerian Senate committee report on the April violence in Baga (Borno State, close to Lake Chad) stated that Nigeria’s military had become dangerously overstretched between its campaign against Boko Haram and its international commitments. The committee urged the president to direct the armed forces to begin the urgent recruitment of large numbers of new officers and soldiers (Daily Trust [Lagos], June 26). According to the Nigerian chief-of-army-staff, Lieutenant Azubike Ihejirika, the Nigerian Army has recruited over 16,000 officers and men in the last two years, a figure that does not seem to agree with the Senate committee’s assessment of the Army’s recruiting efforts (Vanguard [Lagos], July 17). The exact number of men being pulled out of the roughly 1,200 man Nigerian peacekeeping deployment in Mali was not stated, but it is understood that nearly all the combat infantry will be pulled out, leaving behind only some engineers, signalers and other military specialists.
The Nigerian Joint Task Force (JTF – a combined arms counter-insurgency unit) has warned that some Boko Haram elements would flee the operations in northeast Nigeria and seek refuge in quieter parts of the country, such as Jigawa State, where three Boko Haram members were killed in a pre-dawn raid on July 17 (Vanguard [Lagos], July 17). Many Boko Haram fighters also appear to have evaded the destruction of their bases in northern Borno by backtracking into Maiduguri, leading the JTF to begin operations in that city.
On July 3, the JTF began a major operation designed to clear out Boko Haram strongholds in the Bulabulin, Nganaram, Aljajeri and Falluja wards of Maiduguri. Over the last year, many residents of the wards had been forced from their homes by Boko Haram members, who then consolidated the residences into well-connected compounds (Daily Trust [Lagos], July 8). An estimated 100 people were killed in the operation, which by July 8 had successfully cleared the militants from their compounds, liberated scores of abducted women and children and eliminated the Boko Haram Amir of Bulabulin and Nganaram, who was wanted for the murder of a teacher and three children in Maiduguri. The compounds contained a complex system of tunnels and bunkers that concealed large caches of arms and ammunition. Most disturbing were the mass graves and decomposing bodies stuffed down sewer pipes. (Daily Trust [Lagos], July 15; This Day [Lagos], July 16).
Though it once focused on security targets and Nigerian Christians, Boko Haram appears to be increasingly influenced by takfiri tendencies that have led it to target Muslims whose approach to Islam does not meet the approval of the movement’s leadership. These tendencies were recently recognized by the Shehu of Borno, Abubakr ibn Umar Garbai al-Kanemi, the traditional ruler of Nigeria’s Muslim Kanuri community (Boko Haram is estimated to be 80% Kanuri): “Boko Haram is not a deliberate attempt by Muslims to attack Christians; if it is, they would not have attacked me. If it is a question of targeting only Christians, 13 of my district heads, two council members and many other Muslims would not have been killed. The Amirs of Fika and Kano are Muslims, yet they were attacked by the sect, who also killed many other Muslims leaders” (This Day [Lagos], July 19; see also Terrorism Monitor Brief, February 8). The Shehu urged Nigerians to view Boko Haram as a common enemy and not as an attempt by Muslims to Islamize Nigeria.
Boko Haram appears to have responded to the government offensive by switching to soft targets such as schools. Using firearms and bombs, unidentified attackers recently struck a boarding school in Yobe State, killing 42 students and staff (AFP, July 13). The massacre in Yobe is the latest in a series of attacks on primary, secondary and university students and staff believed to have been carried out by Boko Haram since the government offensive began.
Boko Haram leader Abubakr Shekau explained his movement’s position in a video released shortly after the Yobe attack: “We fully support the attack on this Western education school in Mamudo… Teachers who teach western education? We will kill them! We will kill them in front of their students, and tell the students to henceforth study the Qur’an.” Shekau, however, did not go so far as to claim responsibility for the attacks, saying: “Our religion does not permit us to touch small children and women, we don’t kill children” (AFP, July 13; Guardian [Lagos], July 15). Despite Shekau’s insistence on Quranic education, even certain Quranic schools have been targeted for closure by the takfiri Boko Haram militants for minor religious differences, such as the use of prayer beads by religious teachers (Guardian [Lagos], July 15).
Members of a Maiduguri anti-Boko Haram Militia, the “Civilian JTF”
The mayhem and slaughter that follow in the wake of Boko Haram operatives has led to the creation of vigilante committees in Nigeria’s Muslim north, including the most effective, the Borno Vigilance Youth Group (BVYG). Armed with sticks, knives and machetes, the BVYG has been conducting door-to-door searches for over five weeks in their hunt for Boko Haram gunmen, achieving enough success to be congratulated for their efforts by JTF spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Sagir Musa (Guardian [Lagos], July 19). On July 18, the BVYG culminated a three-week search for an elusive Boko Haram commander known as “Two-Face” (no other known name) by seizing him as he attempted to flee the manhunt in Maiduguri and handing him over to the JTF (Guardian [Lagos], July 18).
BVYG chairman Abubakr Mallum described the methods used by the vigilantes to uncover the hiding places of Boko Haram operatives: “We rely on informal information provided by some residents, including relatives of the fleeing Boko Haram members. Besides that, some of the youths in this massive manhunt had monitored how the attacks and killings were perpetrated by the gunmen in the various wards and communities” (Guardian [Lagos], July 19). In contrast, a senior official at the Nigerian Defense Ministry described the difficulties being experienced by the Nigerian military in coping with an asymmetric insurgency: “Our structure has never been geared towards the current challenges – suicide attacks, IED attacks. These are tactics that until very recently we only saw on television, just like the U.S. was rudely awakened by planes entering into buildings… It’s not just about training Nigerians how to shoot. We need to look at what terrorism will look like in 20 years from now” (Guardian [Lagos], July 15).
Nigeria has also decided to withdraw two battalions from the African Union/United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (still using the acronym of its predecessor, UNAMID) just as the security situation in the western region of Sudan begins to deteriorate once more (Premium Times [Abuja], July 19). UNAMID peacekeepers in Darfur have lately found themselves under attack, with seven peacekeepers killed and 17 wounded on July 13 near Nyala. Most of the casualties in the attack, the worst since UNAMID was formed in 2008, were from the Tanzanian contingent (Reuters, July 13). The attack followed a July 3 ambush of Nigerian troops near Nyala that wounded three Nigerian peacekeepers (Reuters, July 4). A force of several hundred men will apparently remain in Guinea Bissau as part of the ECOWAS Security Mission to Guinea Bissau (ECOMIB), a 620-man contingent drawn from Nigeria, Senegal and Burkina Faso that has just extended its mandate to May, 2014 (Nigerian Tribune, July 19).
The Nigerian pullback will undoubtedly affect a number of UN peacekeeping operations, with Nigeria currently being the fourth largest contributor of troops to such missions. Nigerian military and police personnel are also deployed on peacekeeping missions in Haiti, Liberia, South Sudan, East Timor, Somalia, Côte d’Ivoire and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
- For the Nigerian peacekeeping contingent in Mali, see Andrew McGregor, “Chad and Niger: France’s Military Allies in Northern Mali,” Aberfoyle International Security Special Report – February 15, 2013, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=186 .
This article first appeared in the July 25, 2013 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor