Northern Nigerian Insurgency: A Review

As an exercise in accountability (or maybe vanity), I have looked over some of my analysis and recommendations of the past months and in this piece will compare and contrast them with the current state of affairs and try and draw some conclusions for the future.

Situation Enemy Forces

It can be argued that Boko Haram has held the initiative in Nigeria since September 2013 and in Cameroun since May 2014 (although the fighting there has been prosecuted with less indiscriminate barbarity than in Nigeria).

As discussed in Boko Haram’s Ramadan Offensive 2, I assessed that the enemies’ key objectives were to; (1) Ensure the continued physical, financial and material survival of the collective groups and its leadership and (2) Maintain freedom of movement in their key terrain.

I do not believe these objectives have changed, only the methods of achieving them. I attributed the enemies’ tactical success to their ruthlessness, unity of purpose, operational flexibility, mobility and use of geography. We will see how these apply in the changed situation alluded to in Boko Harams Harmattan Offensive- Decision Points in which I listed a few of Boko Haram’s potential courses of action as:

  • Go on the defensive and absorb the coming attacks
  • Go on the defensive and withdraw into the Mandara Mountains, Waza and Sambisa Forests etc
  • Attack into Cameroun
  • Attack into Chad
  • Attack deeper into Nigeria
  • Attack into Niger

It will be seen that the enemy did all of the above.

Chadian forces attacked Gamboru Ngala, North West of the AO with a mechanised unit supported by air and artillery, the enemy went on the defensive and absorbing the attack and withdrawing from the town and its environs with losses. They almost immediately demonstrated their mobility and flexibility by moving to the Chadians rear attacking into Fotokol, Cameroun and briefly seizing the town (ironically when it defended by a strong Camerounian/ Chadian garrison). and the El Beid Bridge connecting it to Gamboru Ngala thus isolating the Chadians. They made the most of their time in Fotokol murdering several hundred civilians with their characteristic ruthlessness before being pushed out. It is believed they have left stay behind units necessitating security operations by Camerounian forces to search them out. The enemy has repeated their counter attacks against Gamboru Ngala using tunnels and other geographical features, attempted to infiltrate across the El Beid River to the Chadians rear as well as roadside IED attacks. The enemy also used their numbers and mobility within Cameroun to attack villages and ambush travellers with the wanton brutality seen in Nigeria, aiming to terrorise and not just loot and grab recruits.

The Chadians used a wide flanking move through Niger Republic to defeat the enemy in Malam Fatori, who responded quickly with repeated counter attacks into Niger again to the rear of the Chadian forces, striking Diffa in an attempt to take and/ or destroy Doutchi Bridge over the Yobe River in order to isolate the Chadians in Malam Fatori. They also attacked N’guigmi and Bosso, which were being used as a forming up point for the Chadian and Nigerien forces (and Canadian Special Forces on the annual US AFRICOM training exercise, Ex Flintlock- a fairly convenient posting for all concerned). The Nigeriens also became the first external victims of deliberate Boko Haram IED attacks against civilians.

The enemy also attacked Ngouboua in Lac Region of Chad, the town whilst not militarily significant served as a refugee camp as well as a base for humanitarian operations.

These rapid counter attacks were all demonstrations of the enemy’s mobility, use of geography and flexibility and its ruthlessness.

Within Nigeria, the enemies’ main forces launched a battalion sized attack with armour, artillery, mortars, crew served weapons and masses of dismounted gunmen against Maiduguri, or more to the point the approaches to it and were defeated with heavy and losses in men and materiel.

It is important to note that the enemy made full use of Main Battle Tanks, APCs, artillery pieces, mortars and other heavy weaponry in this attack, elevating it slightly above raid category to a determined effort to break into the city. Their defeat at its approaches indicates how much resource has been put into a layered defence of the city, as both sides have identified the fate of Maiduguri as a key psychological and strategic objective.

The use of large amounts of heavy weaponry against Maiduguri can be likened to a last desperate throw of the dice, as the enemy understands that the opportunities for massing such forces and heavy weaponry is receding as more and more forces come into play and as the dry season comes to an end. If they had succeeded in breaking through to Maiduguri it would have taken additional reinforcements from within and without the AO to dislodge them relieving pressure on other sectors. Likewise the psychological effect of a breakthrough would have been devastating. Once the rainy season comes, MBTs and APCs will be restricted in their movements (if they are still running as Boko Haram is unlikely to have the spares, mechanics or workshops needed to keep these machines going)

Likewise the enemy attacked deeper into Nigeria with IED attacks against targets in Borno, Yobe and Gombe State, and major raid with crew served weapons and mounted gunmen on 14th February against at least 3 towns including Gombe City itself.

These attacks are less an indication of Boko Harams limitless ability but rather a sensible application of Maoist guerrilla principles (The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy stops, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats we pursue).

Their objectives have been operationally and strategically sound. Attacking the bridges leading to Fotokol and Diffa, directly threatens the supply lines of the troops. It is standard Boko Haram operating procedure to try and isolate target units by threatening their lines of communications (destroying bridges, blowing holes in roads etc). Even if not successful it means the friendly commanders need to dedicate a portion of their combat power to defending their rear as well as their front and flanks. Strategically the attacks on civilians in Chad, Northern Cameroun and Niger serve as warning to these nations’ governments that there is a price to pay for intervention.

The attacks in Gombe are a natural evolution of the early raids in Nafada, Fika etc and IED strikes in Gombe and Azare which served to shape the area for an offensive, drawing forces away from the main area of operations. Taken together these can be seen as preliminary shaping ops of a Boko Haram defensive campaign, seeking to tie up as much friendly and allied combat power as possible to give Boko Haram the time and space it needs to try and survive up to and through the rainy season.

Situation Friendly Forces

My recurring mantra has been the only way to defeat Boko Haram is for a regional effort led by Nigeria. I envisaged a multi divisional Corps commanded by a Nigerian in Rain does not fall on one roof alone. Part 2 with its own air, artillery and logistics support. To bring this about I believed there needed to be;

Political will: in Nigeria, Cameroun, Chad and Niger. This appears to have finally happened, although I thought this would happen under Nigerian leadership and not French. The elections seem to have focussed the Federal Government on the seriousness of the situation. Cameroun had already crossed the Rubicon after their relationship with Boko Haram broke down, but the lack of coordination with Nigeria left Cameroun militarily exhausted without the capacity to regenerate new forces particularly of the quality of those already deployed.

Chad’s fairly incestuous relationship with Boko Haram ended when they realised that international resolve was hardening. They picked an excellent point to get involved, ensuring they not only had international support and encomiums, but logistic, intelligence and operational support from France, the US, AU and EU. Niger likewise jumped on board under the AU/ UN mandate as their involvement was inevitable once Chad joined in due to the large number of Nigeriens in Boko Haram and Boko Harams need to defend their camps, cells and supply routes in Niger.

Legal: rather than a new comprehensive treaty as I postulated, the existing 1998 MJNTF treaty has been tweaked with bilateral Memorandums of Understanding between Nigeria/ Chad and Nigeria/ Niger under an AU mandate. I can only presume the AU mandate was a device to secure funding and assistance from the US and EU.

Curiously the MoU’s are only with the French G5 Sahel Countries that host Op Barkhane bases (Chad and Niger) and non with the non-participant Cameroun. This is a curious omission considering Cameroun has the longest border with Nigeria, the worst external infestation of Boko Haram and has been actively fighting them for months.

The terms of the MoUs and original MJNTF treaty are not available but there is at least some form of legal framework for the conflict although how it is interpreted and implemented is unclear.

Military and Law Enforcement:

Area of Operations: I envisaged this would encompass parts or all of Nord, Extreme Nord and Adamaoua Regions (Cameroun), parts of Borno, Adamawa, Yobe, Taraba and Benue States (Nigeria). Diffa Prefecture (Niger), Hadjer-Lamis, Lac, N’Djamena, Chari-Baguirmi, Kanem, Mayo-Kebbi Est and Mayo-Kebbi Ouest Regions (Chad).

The new MJNTF’s Area of Operations appear to be Borno state, Extreme Nord Region and Diffa Prefecture. Chadian forces are the only ones that seem to be operating across all 3 territories. The mandate actually says the AO is anywhere there is Boko Haram activity, a fairly loose definition. The HQ has been moved from Baga to N’Djamena, Chad.

Command: I had envisaged a joint command with 7 Division and Cameroun’s 3rd Joint Military Region (RMIA3) to coordinate and resource military and police operations with links to adjacent military commands in Chad and Niger.

In fact RMIA3 was split into RMIA4 (covering Extreme Nord Region) with HQ in Maroua, leaving Adamaoua and Nord Regions under RMIA3 and the 4th Gendarmerie Region (4eme RG) covering Extreme Nord Region split from 3eme RG. RMIA4 commanded by Col Jacob Kodji, consists of the 41st Motorised Infantry Battalion (41eme BRIM) formerly 32eme BRIM with HQ at Kousseri. Also in RMIA4 area of operations but not under its operational control is Op Alpha consisting of Special Forces such as BTAP, BIR and GP.

The Chadian and Camerounian operation is known as Op Logone 2015 commanded by Camerounian Lt Gen. Meka with Chadian Gen Bazine as deputy. However Lt Gen Meka is the Camerounian Chief of Defence Staff so it is likely the Chadians has operational command.  All Camerounian forces in RMIA4 are tasked to Op Logone 2015 while Op Alpha maintains its autonomous command structure. The Chadians have contributed 2,000 troops (units unknown) comprising infantry, mounted infantry, artillery (MLRS), mortars, light armoured vehicles and an unknown number of mercenary piloted Mi 8 helicopters, SU 25s and Mi 35s.

The Nigerian effort, Op Zaman Lafiya consists of 7 Div (Gen M.Y. Ibrahim) supported by elements of the Nigerian Air Force 75 Strike Group, 81 Air Maritime Group, 97 Special Operations Group and 99 Air Weapons School and the existing MNJTF-Baga (which is essentially an independent Brigade). 7 Div consists of 21, 22 and 23 Bde with various other formations attached it as per operational requirement.

NPF and MOPOL are also heavily engaged with elements of the Navy, Customs and DSS attached. It is unclear whether other agencies are under operational or tactical command or control of 7 Div. It is hoped these structures will be clarified prior to Nigeria entering the AU MNJTF structures.

Operations: I envisaged that the force would have 4 components; a Law Enforcement and Judiciary element, comprising of joint intelligence and policing cells and command structures, a Ground holding element, to defend population centres, key terrain and lines of communications within the Area of Operations. Mobile forces to dominate the ground and deny the enemy freedom of movement and a Strike force to destroy enemy bases through air and ground assault.

The MJNTF-N’Djamena Concept of Ops is not available however the mandate does call for a combined force of 8,700 soldiers and policemen for combat as well as humanitarian and Stabilisation operations within the limits of their abilities. In Boko Haram’s Ramadan Offensive 2 I had envisaged an 8 phase operation

Phase 0: Integration Phase 3: Isolate enemy safe areas Phase 6: Hold
Phase 1: Preparation Phase 4: Destroy Enemy Forces Phase 7: Secure
Phase 2: Isolate the Area of Operations Phase 5: Clear

As of now only Phases 0 and 1 (integration and preparation) can be deemed to be underway and possibly Phase 2 as the clearing of Gamboru Ngala, Malam Fatori and Michika isolates the enemy from their supply lines and safe areas.

Economic: the final element considered was economic measures to prevent a reoccurrence of these groups. Although there are various funds set up to aid victims, it is unclear if these are performing as planned, this however is a long term element.


In as much as Boko Harams success has been unusual, it can be seen that in fact the group is still bound by the same rules of warfare as any other military force requiring logistics to sustain its forces who need time and space (dictated by seasons, external events and geography)  to manoeuvre effectively.

The current narrative of this campaign has been of the inability of the Nigerian Army to defeat Boko Haram due to cowardice and incompetence.

This is false.

Whilst there are significant command, structural, logistic and tactical issues that need addressing the key problem in this campaign has been the ability too little combat power and an excess of space to cover and an inability to sustain the forces deployed.

Nigerian forces did not begin to lose territory until last year when the same limited number of troops were used to cover large areas, whilst the enemy used their mobility to keep attacking more and more areas forcing Nigerian forces to disperse further and further and increasing the strain on an already creaky communication and logistic system. The failure of the Nigerian command was to not recognise this earlier and institute a total war strategy as recommended in Op Entirety and bring all available forces (Navy, NAF, Police, non combat soldiers etc.) into the AO retask them as ground holding forces to restrict the enemy’s freedom of movement and free up combat troops for strike ops.

This is the situation the Camerounians have now found themselves in. They have managed this campaign by using their best troops to fight a limited campaign, these troops will soon need to be relieved in place in order for them to rest, refit and get back to full strength, however with all other Camerounian forces tied into operations in Bakassi and CAR, Cameroun has no uncommitted element left for the fight. Hence the appeal to the Chadians.

Chad has a battle hardened force and the support of France but despite their aggressive posture and media campaign are extremely vulnerable. Their task force can take territory but it has to hold it and defend its lines of communications as well as defend the home nation against attacks. The Chad has insurgents in their North and East, trans Sahelian smuggling routes to interdict, as well as an oil pipeline to defend. They will very soon hit the same problem as the Camerounians of having no uncommitted element to put into the fight. Troops have already been deployed from facing Darfur to Fotokol to protect the Task Forces rear whilst additional forces will have to be found to defend the area around Lake Chad.

Boko Haram has consistently demonstrated an operational and strategic skill far superior to that of their adversaries a feat that is even more impressive when you consider they are not a homogenous force and have no hope of winning. They have demonstrated a clear and logical understanding of the situation and react in ways that utilise their strengths and targets their adversaries’ weaknesses.

They have successfully demonstrated their reach and ability, forcing their adversaries to dedicate additional resources to defending their home nations as well as the regional force and this is all before the main counter offensive begins.

If successful they could knock out or reduce the involvement of certain actors in the conflict giving them the freedom they need to carry on their campaign.

However this strategy is a diminishing return, the longer the allied nations stay the course the more the enemy loses men and equipment. The further they are pushed from their supply lines and safe areas the more time they need to spend just trying to stay alive rather than fighting.


Boko Harams problems revolve around time and space.

Without control of the Lake Chad and Mandara Zones, they lose control of the smuggling routes to/from the Sahel and Central Africa, losing revenue and thus the ability to pay skilled mercenaries and commanders or even regenerate their reduced numbers beyond forced conscripts.

Boko Haram also has 3 deadlines it needs to focus on, the first is the Nigerian election in which the strategic focus and security forces of its largest and most dangerous adversary will be diverted. The second is the rainy season, when unprepared roads are impassable particularly to heavy vehicles or even large numbers of all-terrain vehicles. The third is when the MJNTF becomes operational and all regional forces begin to operate simultaneously.

Boko Haram can do nothing about the second deadline, the first and third they seek to influence the most.

By emphasising their opposition to the election and threatening attacks, not only do they fulfil their nominal hatred of elections but it also force friendly commanders to ‘plan for the worst’ which in practical terms means dedicating more resources towards that event. By attacking each of the allied nations with increasing brutality, it forces them to dedicate more forces to protecting the home nation and lines of communication and not going on the attack.

If their preparations are complete by the end of the dry season they can force the allied forces into a gruelling fight in difficult terrain where vehicles for supply, fire support and transport will have difficulty going, whilst the more mobile enemy fights back with ambushes, IED attacks, raids on isolated villages and kidnappings.

The imperative this is for the allied nations to maintain focus on the main effort and not descend into childish squabbles such as broke out between Nigeria and Niger or Chad and Cameroun.

The new MJNTF will not defeat the enemy but if they reverse the Maoist dictum and attack, attack, attack and attack, the enemy can neither retreat nor harass and we will be closer to the end of the beginning.

About peccavi

A Nigerian with interests in defence, security, geopolitics, the military particularly small unit tactics, COIN, stabilisation and asymmetric warfare
This entry was posted in Counter insurgency, Defence, Nigeria Defence, Nigeria Strategy, Stabilisation, Terrorism, West Africa Defence, West Africa Strategy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Northern Nigerian Insurgency: A Review

  1. shehu says:

    Gud morning prof, this is indeed a very comprehensive insightful analysis of the status quo. but some important things need to be considered.
    (1) the west: they will not fight our war bcos they are occupied wit theirs, infact they are even trying leave hot zones bcos of the cost. And we must be careful about their presence (proxy) bcos it seems they may not be stabilizing force, just look at all the negative propaganda against our military in international press.
    (2) chad: chad military prowess is been overblown, infact its military is a militia not up to one full nigerian division in strength. and i tell u they cant withstand sustained raids, ambushes and may eventually run away as in mali after some loses. If chad, niger and cameroon had faced what nigeria faced in the past 4 yrs they would have been nonexistent.
    (3)nigeria : nigeria has all it takes to win this war ( manpower, logistics) but we are d problem of ourselves. The military doctrine/stratagy need to be fully reviewed to fit and also lack of proper welfere to soldiers (curruption) which to me is what leads mutiny/cawardice. Our problem is not weapons bcos BH does not have the supply of a silently division.
    finally sir, i think the enermy strength need to be properly studied bcos i was shocked about their full strength attack on gombe i never thought they could.

    • peccavi says:

      Oga you are correct, the west is not going to intervene directly however there will definitely be French and US SF action around Chad and Niger to protect their assets in those countries and interdict jihadist traffic. But there is no way they will commit major ground troops. Chad has a small competent army but I agree they are massively overblown and Boko Haram might find them wanting, remember during the Battle of N’Djamena, they were facing defeat from exactly the same type of force. Without French support they will not be able to sustain this operation. Nigeria should have won this war a long time ago but unfortunately the focus of the leadership was on other things. The Gombe attack should not be surprising, they have been building up in Gombe/ Bauchi for a while. The question is how long can they sustain these type of operations?

      • shehu says:

        oga, i really commend the accurcy in your analysis and excellent understanding of the situation. sir, i may recomend michael scheuer’s books “through our enermy’s eye”, “imperial hubris”, “osama bin laden”, “marching towards hell” for further reading. Thnx.

      • peccavi says:

        THanks Shehu, I’ll take a look at them. I would recommend reading books about thee WW1 campaign in the Northern Camerouns. Very interesting similarities in some respect

  2. George says:

    Thanks for the great piece which summarizes your accurate analysis over the past months. However, I don’t have confidence that Chad and Cameroon mean well. I believe Niger is the only one that has a cordial enough relationship with Nigeria. Chad and Cameroon will continue with the fight for as long as it threatens their territory but will not do anything extra to assist Nigeria with the insurgency – perhaps there is nothing wrong with this. I just hope the Nigerian authorities are not so naive. It’s also sad that France, a European Country, took the initiative from Nigeria, the regional power, to create this multinational push. But overall if all these disparate actions by the different Countries (for different reasons) push back Boko Haram, then it’s all good in the short term. Nigeria may have to consider how this will affect their territorial integrity and military standing in the region.

    • peccavi says:

      Thanks, your welcome. I agree with you but I think Niger is actually the weakest link, thei Army is tiny and they cannot sustain any type of operstion for long.
      However both the Nigeriens and Chadians have US and French bases so that is there security umbrella. Cameroun does not. Cameroun has been fighting BH longer, also most of their base camps and training camps are in Cameroun.
      If we look at the 2 areas we can call key terrain-Lake Chad and the Mandara Mountains, Lake Chad has economic value as a smuggling hub, but the Mandaras are defensible, guerilla territory.
      Once Nigeria, Niger and Chad secure Lake Chad I feel the latter 2 will stop operations. For whatever reason rather than tying ourselves to Cameroun they are the country we have the worst relationship with. Chad’s own is just shakara, Niger is follow follow. Camerouns threat however is exitentia

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