If enemy forces have a centre of gravity in Nigeria, it revolves somewhere around Gwoza. This town at the foot of the Northern Mandaras linking the Cameroun and Nigerian sides of the highlands, controlling access to north, east and west.
Thus the battle of Gwoza will be decisive not just for straight forward operational reasons that it is key terrain but for the fact that the enemy seems quite keen to make an issue of its ownership.
So why is Gwoza important?
Taking in to account Boko Harams ostensible strategic objective to overthrow the secular, elected government and replace it with their form of Sharia based government, they must either control a significant amount of Nigeria’s territory and population, threaten Nigeria’s economic well being or else create a situation where by they can seize the seat of government and impose their will on the country.
However a basic conventional assessment of Nigeria as a battlespace, shows there is virtually no way any force (without significant local support or a highly efficient logistics chains) much less a loose, unpopular, nihilistic, guerrilla alliance could successfully attack from one end of the country to another. Factors similar to those that defeated Usman Dan Fodio’s southward attack and Biafra’s 101 Division’s westward attack apply to Boko Haram. The tactics that worked in one terrain fail in another (as the Fulani cavalry discovered), columns of vehicles with crew served weapons might be decisive in the open Sahel, in the restricted rain forests of the South they are extremely vulnerable to ambush. Intricate knowledge of the cattle, trade and smuggling routes in the northeast and the significant local membership might help Boko Haram sustain itself in the Northeast/ Lake Chad zone, however the same does not pertain in the south (as Biafra who sustained themselves successfully with interior lines found with their Mid West offensive)
Although nothing is impossible it is highly improbable that Boko Haram can gather the necessary combat power and resources to create such a situation, sustain it and more importantly defend it from counter attacks.
Thus the only way for Boko Haram to achieve its aims would be to exploit a situation in which the Nigerian state is unable to defend most of its territory or the population. For example by attacking when the overwhelming majority of its combat power is committed to a task; such as securing an election.
This is the rationale that informed the urgency to defeat Boko Haram before this took place and when this become impossible, the election was postponed to allow the needed combat power to be applied and push Boko Haram away from lucrative smuggling routes, key terrain and population centres.
But the corollary of this is that even at its most powerful Boko Haram has largely contained in the North East. Nigeria is a huge country so even if the Nigerian security forces were fully deployed manning the elections, dealing with ethnic conflict in the Middle Belt, Niger Delta, unrest and political violence in the East or West, the best Boko Haram could have hoped for prior to the Valentine Offensive would be to capture Maiduguri, Yola or Damaturu. Holding them would have been another issue. A more likely scenario is Boko Haram counter attacking and retaking Baga, Mubi or Gamboru Ngala however the loss of these towns means little outside Borno, Adamawa or Yobe States.
This brings us to the paradox of this insurgency, beyond the fairly logical objective of securing Nigerian lives, territory and property there is limited strategic incentive to resolve this conflict.
The North East contains no manufacturing or extractive industry that provides significant Federal revenue. Its people are quite poor and do not have articulate international spokesmen such as Ken Saro Wiwa or Wole Soyinka. Although it is a major food producing region, most of its produce goes to Chad, Niger and Cameroun. Supplies to Nigerian markets can be made good from other sources. The effects of Boko Harams actions are felt much more keenly by Chadian citizens in N’Djamena than by Nigerian citizens in Lagos, Sokoto, Abuja or Port Harcourt.
As this commentator has mooted before, Boko Haram does not constitute an existential threat to Nigeria. It is a bigger danger to Cameroun with its limited resources and Chad with its dependence on supply lines through Cameroun and Niger Republic.
The North East is thus strategically insignificant to Nigeria, however to the Lake Chad states it is essential, in some ways existential.
Northern Cameroun depends on The North East for cheap fuel, smuggled goods and as a market for produce and livestock, likewise Nigeria is Chads biggest livestock market and Niger’s largest fish buyer.
We thus have the paradoxical situation that a resolution in the North East is more important to these nations than Nigeria.
What this means is that in Nigeria the greatest strategic imperative is to create the conditions whereby the elections can be held and more importantly won. For Chad and Cameroun the greatest imperative is for Boko Haram to be pushed back into Nigeria or Niger and clear the trade routes to and from Cameroun, Niger, Nigeria, Benin and Chad.
For Niger their greatest strategic imperative is to go back to the stalemate of before where Boko Haram focussed on Nigeria and Cameroun and left them alone.
The key question thus is how these strategic disconnects will survive or develop in the coming months. It can be seen from the fairly arrogant and bellicose announcements from Chad that the strategic objective of cementing their reputation as a regional military power is more important than an enduring regional cooperation. The fact that they have claimed the capture of Malam Fatori and Dikwa twice shows despite French and US assistance there are limits to their much vaunted military prowess and their ability to sustain operations for much longer is limited.
Cameroun entered the fight when it faced two crises on its borders, with Centrafrique’s implosion to the east and Boko Haram to the west, it correctly identified Boko Haram as the most dangerous threat and began military action, but only with the urging of France who fully committed in Centrafrique and the Sahel could not risk a threat to the southern flank of their Sahelian operational zone. Prior to this combination of threats and influences Cameroun just like Niger was happy to allow their unemployed youth to go on jihad and either die or get some money or loot out of the bargain.
The Nigerian election is in two weeks. Bama has fallen, as has Marraba Mubi, Mubi and Madagali. This isolates Gwoza in a neat arc from north via west to south. The Chadians have moved strong forces to Limani and Ashigashiya this blocking their escape to the rear.
Nigerian forces concentrate troops and logistics for the assault, while shaping the battlespace with limited ops around the area, clearing Sambisa Forest and goading the enemy to sally out and attack.
The enemy has quite helpfully moved significant forces into the town and are conducting their own shaping ops with raids in and around Gwoza and Sambisa Forest and a vicious round of suicide bomb attacks using men, women and children to try to distract and deplete Nigerian forces but their weakness is showing through the clear lack of offensive spirit beyond ambushes and small raids. When Boko Haram was in the ascendant it would have launched strong spoiling attacks to blunt the coming offensive, now it must content itself with a series of IED belts.
All things being equal Boko Harams main forces will be largely destroyed in Gwoza leaving smaller outlying gangs scattered around.
These forces could surrender, disperse, regroup or simply revert to roving banditry. In order to complete the destruction of these gangs and to roll up the IED networks, the number of troops deployed must not be reduced and in fact must increase.
Taking into account the strategic disconnect that exists between the Lake Chad countries, the onus once again will fall on Nigeria to hold and clear the area and also prevent Boko Haram from reconstituting in Chad, Cameroun or Niger.
Irrespective of who wins the Nigerian election it is imperative that troop numbers and operational tempo is not just maintained but increased.
We can only hope this reality is clearly understood and acted upon.