This commentator’s general reading of the insurgency in North Eastern Nigeria rests on several assumptions, such as:
As devastating as it is for the inhabitants and security forces involved the insurgency does not present an existential threat to the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
The only way the insurgency presents an existential threat, is when all of Nigeria’s combat power and security resource are fully committed leaving no uncommitted element to contain the insurgency or any unforeseen circumstance.
The first definitive time this will occur is February 2015 when Nigeria holds general elections absorbing all of Nigeria’s available combat and security forces on internal security duties.
Operationally the rainy season, flooded rivers, bad roads, swamps and forests restricts the insurgent’s vehicular freedom of movement.
Thus there is a small window of opportunity before the onset of this year’s dry season when this unfavourable terrain, superior mobility, numbers and firepower will allow friendly forces to isolate and defeat the insurgents.
It is the considered opinion of this commentator that due to the specific events of the 10th and 17th October this opportunity no longer exists and that conditions are now such that Boko Haram can successfully campaign at will throughout the dry season up to and beyond the election in a manner and area of their choosing, creating the existential threat above.
On 10th October, 17 Camerounian and 10 Chinese hostages were released by Boko Haram, the Camerounian hostages included the Lamido of Kolofata and family and the wife of the Camerounian Deputy PM Madame Francoise Angel Ali (despite having been apparently been freed by Camerounian forces on 30th July).
In keeping with Boko Harams usual practice (Boko Haram’s Ramadan Offensive 2), the negotiations were predicated on finance and personnel.
Media reports vary as to the amounts paid but the sum of 3.2 billion CFA Francs (£387,100/ $621, 000) has been mentioned by a generally useful Camerounian media outlet L’oeil du Sahel. Despite the 10 Chinese retailing at 1.5bn CFA Francs and the Kolofata 17 at 1.7bn CFA Francs the biggest gift to Boko Haram were the 30 prisoners released as part of the deal.
These included Ndjidda Hassana aka Sheikh Abdul Mohamed, Alioum Hassan, Mohamed Abakar, Mahamat Adjil, Hassana Ahmed, Ema Hassana, Idriss Djibril Ndjidda, Mohamed Hadjer and Mohamed Ali who were all sentenced on 24 July, by a military court in Maroua to long terms of imprisonment after being captured in the vicinity of Goulfey with 6,000 rounds of ammunition, 239 x AK 47s, grenades, 9 x machine guns, 2 x unspecified rifles, 3 x pistols, 6 x FN FAL Rifles and 3 x rocket launchers.
Also released were members of a Boko Harm cell arrested in Kousseri on 23 September; Tatenda Parked, Mahamat Ali, Goni Mustapha Maira, Ousmanou and Abakar Ali. The latter reportedly controlled the largest Boko Haram logistics base in Cameroun, with one cache reportedly containing 1 x machine gun, 4 x heavy machine guns, 14 flares, 4 x rocket launchers, 6 x AK 47s, 60 x AK47 magazines, 62 x 9mm rounds, 469 x 12.7mm ammunition, 4454 x 7.62mm ammunition, 1491 x 5.56mm, 203 x 7.62mm ammunition, 619 unspecified ammunition, 6 x rifle grenades, 28 x RPG charges and a suitcase of Korans and preaching material.
It is also alleged that arms and ammunition were part of the deal, although it is unlikely it could have been these captured weapons given back as part of the trade.
So to summarise not only does Boko Haram have its logisticians and hardened commanders back but it is $600,000 richer controlling uncontested space from Lake Chad to Madagali.
We now move onto Act 2 in this 2 part tragedy (or maybe farce would be more accurate).
On Friday 17th October the Chief of Defence Staff Air Vice Marshal Alex Badeh announced a ceasefire with Boko Haram. This was supported by an announcement from by previously unknown individual rejoicing in the name Danladi Ahmadu.
Doubts about this ceasefire arose immediately for several reasons the first being nomenclature; while AVM Badeh referred to Boko Haram by its actual name Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, the purported General Secretary/ spokesperson/ Chief security Officer Danladi Ahmadu referred to the sect by its popular but derogatory nickname of Boko Haram. Even the name ‘Danladi’ itself is an Hausa name meaning ‘born on Sunday’ a fairly illogical nom de guerre for an Islamic Salafist jihadi.
Other question marks include the fact that no one seems to have told Boko Haram there is a ceasefire with several attacks immediately after the ceasefire announcement, with one particularly large one against Abadam starting on Thursday and continuing through till Sunday.
But window dressing aside the key question is why? Why would either side agree to a ceasefire at this point?
To cease or not to cease?
Currently there is a stalemate in the battlespace. Boko Haram occupies a large swathe of territory but has been unable to make any headway east into Fotokol, Cameroun or West towards Maiduguri or Damaturu. The heavy fighting around Konduga/ Bazza and Fotokol/ Gamboru Ngala appears to have caused significant losses in men and materiel to Boko Haram. Combined with the requirements of sustaining a large disparate force across difficult terrain with limited infrastructure (much of which they destroyed themselves), they are operationally stymied.
Camerounian forces having fought successful defensive battles around Fotokol, Kolofata, Amchide, Kouserri and other border towns find themselves stretched and exhausted. To completely eliminate the threats to this area they would need to cross into Nigeria, an operation Cameroun does not have the capabilities to undertake and sustain. Nigerian forces after success at Konduga, Bazza and Wulgo appear to have halted. The window of opportunity opened by the strings of enemy defeats and the killing of key leaders has been allowed to close for unknown reasons.
Situation Friendly Forces:
The official reason for the ceasefire was hostage release. The GSS Chibok girls were specifically mentioned however there have been contradictory statements with one official stating they would be released by Tuesday 21st, with another stating that talks about their release would begin Monday 20th. Little has been said about the several hundred other male and female captives.
To be fair the only logical reason for a ceasefire would be a genuine hostage release. As stated above Boko Haram has advanced no position beyond ransom, recompense and release of imprisoned members in negotiations thus beyond this there is nothing that can be conceded as they are unlikely to agree to quietly pack up and go home. Recovering the hostages would be positive for the victims and their families and boost morale but other than freeing up friendly forces to use unrestricted firepower serves no operational purpose.
This is because the hostage release is strategically meaningless since whatever price is paid for the hostages as long as Boko Haram retains operational freedom, they can simply snatch another set at their leisure. Other very worrying aspects of the ceasefire include;
Credibility: the ceasefire was announced by friendly forces first, with only a completely unknown entity from the other side endorsing it. For it to be credible it needed an announcement from a known personality such as ‘Shekau’ or a unilateral trust building gesture such as the release of some of the hostages. There is no way for anybody (including the participants) to independently verify the ceasefire.
Guarantees: there are no safeguards or guarantees for compliance. Boko Haram has many factions, groups, camps and sub groups each of which whilst nominally under the command of an Amir are very much beyond their control. How does Danladi Ahmadu guarantee the ceasefire is respected by all factions? And how do the complying factions guarantee it will be understood and a respected by all sub groups? This was reinforced by the series of attacks immediately following the announcement. Were these the isolated attacks of groups who have not got the ceasefire message or deliberate attacks by factions who are not signed up to the ceasefire or is there no ceasefire from the other side?
Situation Enemy Forces:
A ceasefire for the enemy at this point is extremely useful. This campaign would have cost them a lot of money, men, vehicles, weapons and ammunition. At the same time their attacks on local people have devastated local agriculture and denuded captured the areas of foodstuffs, farmers and workers. Thus they badly need fuel, weapons, ammunition, food and manpower. All of the above require money and the right people to make it happen, which they have just obtained from Cameroun and China. The key question is not whether the ceasefire is true or false but what does either option mean.
True: if this is a genuine ceasefire approved by the Boko Haram Shura it benefits them as follows;
Resources: collecting and cooking food for hundreds of hostages is a resource intensive exercise just as guarding them is manpower intensive. Having to move them constantly to avoid detection also ties up vehicles, fuel and manpower. Getting rid of this burden in return for cash, personnel and weapons is the epitome of a win-win.
Operational freedom: Boko Haram can continue raiding and attacking whilst claiming these raids are by bandits or factions who have not yet heard of or do not agree with the ceasefire. Thus they benefit from the lack of friendly offensive action (particularly air strikes), whilst they are free to strike at will.
Deniability: The final trump card is the use of Danladi Ahmadu, who as an absurd and unknown quantity can be denied and disowned him at any point, allowing them to claim they never agreed to a ceasefire and that this is all a fabrication.
If this is all an elaborate hoax then Boko Haram whilst still burdened by hostages has the operational freedom afforded it by friendly forces lack of offensive action to rearm and re equip with all that lovely money from China and Cameroun using the good offices of the newly freed Abakar Ali and co, with the script for their next mocking propaganda video already pre written for them.
The security forces in the preceding weeks had carried out many of the necessary preparatory actions for a counter offensive such as forming a multinational force, focussing on parts of the enemies key terrain (such as Lake Chad), improved cooperation with Cameroun, purchasing equipment such as helicopters and reinforcing and stiffening 7 Div with fresh, well led units.
The best case scenario one can envisage is that this is an elaborate deception plan and by the 20th November when the Multinational Force based at Baga becomes operational a general offensive will be launched to clear Boko Haram from around Lake Chad and the border areas and recapture the lost territories. Even if this is the case it is unclear how a month of inaction would benefit friendly forces or how waiting till dry season to fight a highly mobile enemy in the Sahel, when swamps and rivers dry up and the harmattan dust clouds and fog prevent helicopters and aircraft from flying is a wise move.
The legendary Chinese military writer Sun Tzu stated ‘The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting’ and through the hostage release and ceasefire Boko Haram has achieved what should really been unachievable.
They have been given the space and time to rest and refit, the means to rearm and just as crucially, the experienced personnel needed for the logistics efforts as well as hardened and experienced commanders to replace those killed.
If the ceasefire holds long enough, they will have the resources to mount a leisurely mobile defence of the captured areas or launch a Dry Season offensive.
It is thus the opinion of this commentator that the ceasefire and hostage release are comprehensive operational if not strategic victories for Boko Haram.
As an analyst I believe I am right, as a Nigerian I hope I am wrong.