Boko Haram loses grip on thousands of square miles of northern Nigeria

An offensive by the armies of Chad and Nigeria deals blow to Boko Haram’s “Caliphate” – but experts question whether gains will be sustained.


Chadian soldiers in the Nigerian city of Damasak, which was recaptured from Boko Haram last week Photo: Jerome Delay/AP

Boko Haram fighters have been driven from thousands of square miles of territory across northern Nigeria, dealing a significant blow to the Islamist movement’s ambition to carve out an African “Caliphate”.

As recently as January, Boko Haram controlled about 20,000 square miles of Borno and Yobe states, ruling a domain the size of Belgium with a population of at least 1.8 million.

Within this area, the Islamist gunmen re-imposed slavery and massacred thousands of civilians.

Yet in the last fortnight, a counter-offensive by the armies of Chad and Nigeria has deprived Boko Haram of much of its gains. Chadian forces carried out the most effective operation, sweeping along the western shore of Lake Chad and retaking towns like Baga and Doron Baga, which had been largely destroyed by the insurgents.

Meanwhile, the Nigerian army’s 7th Division struck eastwards from Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, and recaptured Bama, the second largest city in the area. Aided by mercenaries from South Africa, Ukraine and the Czech Republic – who are believed to have piloted attack helicopters and operated advanced weapons systems – the Nigerian forces wrested back a large expanse of territory and lifted the threat to Maiduguri, which was previously under regular attack. In all, about 30 towns and villages are believed to have been cleared.

“The major strategic change – and it’s a positive one – is that either the fall of Maiduguri or the Nigerian army being forced to abandon it is now very unlikely,” said Andrew Pocock, the British High Commissioner in Nigeria. “So a disaster of the magnitude of losing a state capital has been averted.”

Boko Haram still controls the town of Gwoza, found beside the Mandara Mountains on the eastern frontier with Cameroon, where the movement has its headquarters. The gunmen also hold much of the surrounding area.

The Nigerian army will have to decide whether to try to retake Gwoza before the rainy season begins next month. Having protected their country’s border from attack by Boko Haram, the Chadian army may also choose to leave Nigeria.

The question will be whether Nigeria’s army is able to keep the gains. “There’s no question there’s been a positive change in the strategic balance, but it’s still tactically quite difficult and holding the gains is not something that can be taken for granted,” added Mr Pocock.

The arrival of Chadian forces in Borno state coincided with the delivery of new helicopters and armoured vehicles to Nigerian units – and the recruitment of foreign mercenaries. These factors tipped the military balance against Boko Haram.

An abandoned Boko Haram camp at Buni Yadi (AP)

But hardly any of the 1.5 million people displaced by the gunmen have been confident enough to return home. The towns recaptured during the offensive are still largely empty.

Virginia Comolli, the author of “Boko Haram: Nigeria’s Islamist Insurgency”,questioned whether the victories were sustainable. “It’s only a military approach: there is very little being done to tackle the underlying grievances in the area,” she said. “It might be that they’re winning a battle, but I’m not sure they’re winning the war.”

President Goodluck Jonathan, who faces re-election on Saturday, has been under intense pressure to deal with Boko Haram. Even after their recent defeats, however, the Islamists remain capable of launching suicide attacks in Nigerian cities. Their gunmen still hold more than 200 schoolgirls who were captured during a raid on the town of Chibok almost one year ago.