Uproar in the East, Strike in the West: Boko Haram and the Maoist Way of War

This piece was originally meant to deal with Boko Harams Decision Points and likely courses of action as one of their final Nigerian strongholds, the Sambisa Forest was being overrun. It will interest regular readers to know that my initial analysis, confidently predicted no major attacks until the end of May until events in Karamaga, Mafa and Marte proved this commentator to be somewhat incorrect! Whilst the attacks at contradict the initial belief that the enemy would preserve their armour and heavy weapons until mid to late May in order to have as dramatic an impact as possible during the transition, the broad trend appears sound but it does give me the opportunity to explore Boko Haram’s Maoist influences.

On Guerrilla Warfare (Yu Chi Chan)

In his seminal pamphlet Yu Chi Chan (On Guerrilla Warfare), Chinese Communist leader Mao Tse Tsung developed several theories which formed the basis for the campaign against the disciplined, well armed and ruthless Imperial Japanese Armed Forces as well as the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-Shek based on his experience of trying to mobilise and lead a Chinese peasant army.

Maoist theory divides a guerrilla campaign into 3 Phases; Organisation and preparation, terrorism/ guerrilla warfare and finally conventional warfare. These three phases are underpinned by 3 factors Time, Space and Will. Only space and time are variable, the guerrillas can take as much time as possible, capture or lose space within that time but Will must be constant in order for a weak guerrilla army to defeat a stronger, better armed force.

Whilst many weaker adversaries have adopted Maoist theory the most prominent and successful example is in Vietnam. The North Vietnamese commander Gen Vo Nguyen Giap revised Mao’s theories into Dau Tranh (The Struggle). This theory combined the military (Day tranh vu trang) and political (Dau Tranh chinh tri) aspects blurring the role of supporters, combatants and non-combatants into a total war of the people amongst the people. For the purpose of this piece we’ll focus solely on the military aspect.

The military aspects of Dau Tranh; Defence (Organisation and preparation), Equilibrium (Terrorism/ guerrilla Warfare) and Offense (conventional warfare) mirrored Mao.

For Giap however the latter 2 phases are much more flexible; he used guerrilla warfare against the French in the Indochina War (1946-1954) and the Vietnam War (1955-1975) against the US and South Vietnamese and other allies to force them to disperse their forces, inflict casualties, build up resentment amongst the people and ensure that all sections of the population were involved in the fight; whilst his conventional forces launched repeated offensives against strategic targets. As we will see Boko Haram is more Giap than Mao.

Boko Haram and the Maoist Way of War

By looking at two distinct time periods in Boko Harams evolution under its 2 leaders; Yusuf and Shekau the Maoist influences become clearer.

Boko Haram- Yusuf

Organisation and Preparation (2002-2003): In 2002 Mohammed Yusuf broke away from the Izala movement forming what becomes Boko Haram. In 2003 Modu Ali Sherriff won the Borno State gubernatorial elections assisted by Yusuf, and street gangs known as ECOMOG made up of Yusufs disciples, in return the Religious Affairs Commission is headed by a Boko Haram follower Buji Foi and Yusuf sets up a commune with mosque and Koranic school in Maiduguri.

Terrorism and guerrilla Warfare (2003-2009): In December 2003 disciples of Yusuf who have settled in Kanama, Yobe State attack police stations and government buildings and are suppressed fleeing to Maiduguri. In 2004 Boko Haram adherents attempt a jail break in Bauchi as well as attack police in the vicinity of Gwoza and Lake Chad. Yusuf is arrested repeatedly but released without charge, going on Hajj twice. In 2007 Buji Foi resigns apparently due to disagreements about Sharia implementation in the Borno State Government. Yusufs preaching becomes more extreme with opposing clerics including his former mentor murdered.

Conventional Warfare/ Uprising (2009): Clashes between Boko Haram in Maiduguri with the police lead to a widespread uprising which spreads to Bauchi, Gombe, Yobe, Kano and Katsina  but is brutally suppressed with the extra judicial murders of Yusuf, Foi and many others. Surviving Boko Haram members under Abubaker Shekau flee.

While it is unclear as to whether Yusuf ever truly planned to launch an insurrection, he was clearly (and up until the uprising successfully) building a force or movement that had the capacity for violent acts, was far flung and popular.

Boko Haram-Shekau

Organisation and Preparation: (2009-2011) – Mao’s first law of war was ‘to preserve ourselves and destroy the enemy’. Shekau and other prominent survivors fled Maiduguri, whilst other supporters and sympathisers either went underground or publicly relinquished ties with the group.

Boko Haram following the Maoist dictum that ‘The Primary function of guerrillas is to conduct war.. in the rear of the enemy, to establish bases and.. to extend the war areas’ began building bases and recruiting and training particularly in Cameroun and around the Nigeria/ Cameroun border areas of Borno and Adamawa State and rebuilding their networks in key northern cities (essentially to the rear of their adversary), whilst circulating propaganda SMS messages and audio tapes with defiant messages from Shekau; in 2010 Boko Haram began a campaign of prison breaks and assassinations mainly of policemen as well as politicians and clerics. Most attacks were with small arms, although IED attacks were recorded in Jos and against police stations. These attacks and assassinations whilst mainly concentrated in Borno State range as far as Plateau, Katsina and Bauchi State. These attacks initially showed a level of discrimination targeting the police, churches, drinking parlours and politicians. Combined with propaganda they attempted to win a level of legitimacy with the people of Northern Nigeria. These low risk attacks not only garner recruits from prison breaks, funds from robberies and weapons from police stations but increase the prestige of Boko Haram.

Terrorism and guerrilla warfare: (2011-2013) in 2011 Boko Haram transitioned to the second stage with spectacular VBIED attacks against the Police HQ and UN building in Abuja as well as continuing the campaign of assassinations and attacks against the police and police stations. Guerrilla warfare begins with attacks on military checkpoints in Borno. Gun and IED attacks against Christians, educational institutes and drinking parlours increase. Boko Haram begins attacking larger military bases and formations.

In 2013, attacks against foreigners begin with the murder of Chinese, the abduction of Lebanese, German, British and French citizens in Nigeria and Cameroun President Jonathan declares a state of emergency, leading Nigerian forces to go on the offensive against Boko Haram briefly gaining the initiative as they cleared Maiduguri and other major cities. Successful air and ground raids against Boko Haram camps in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa give the appearance of victory allowing Boko Haram to consolidate when troops pull out.

As per the Maoist dictum ‘Guerrillas can .. gain the initiative.. if they keep in mind the weaknesses of the enemy.. because of the enemy’s insufficient manpower, guerrillas can operate over vast territories’, Boko Haram began a campaign of brutal attacks against isolated rural villages in Yobe and Borno States, forcing the security forces to disperse further and further to try to protect the populace. Boko Haram increases its raids on heavily garrisoned towns such as Bama and Baga. Spectacular attacks against Maiduguri, Damaturu and Potiskum successfully give the impression of Boko Haram strength and lead to a concerted effort to defend these population centres to the detriment of the rural areas. This allows Boko Haram to begin deploying from Cameroun into the Gwoza Hills and villages among the Cameroun border and move on to the next phase as 2013 comes to an end.

Conventional War (2013-2015): Uproar in the East, Strike in the West. This Maoist tactic of attacking distracting their adversaries forces away from their main objectives is followed here as the increased IED attacks, prison breaks and ambushes as far away as Kogi and Kano allows Boko Haram to begin to isolate and overrun the dispersed Nigerian security forces. In a sustained and determined campaign Boko Haram overruns a significant proportion of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa State, using their superior mobility to isolate individual towns and garrisons, achieve local superiority and defeat them, a situation Mao accurately predicted; To clarify the relationship between…orthodox war and guerrilla war we may say that… the principal element of our strategy is mobility’. Enemy pressure was relentless with towns and bases falling in rapid succession again in keeping with the Maoist principle ‘After defeating the enemy in any area the guerrilla must take advantage of the period he requires for reorganisation to press home their attacks.’ whilst the enemy was most likely never numerically superior to the total force as Mao said The total effect of many local successes will be to change the relative strengths of the opposing forces’; the relentless tempo, multiple far flung attacks created the conditions whereby the security forces were overwhelmed, overstretched, demoralised and due to being isolated and not easily reinforced, often times defeated. Nigerian forces finally counter attack in January 2015, steadily pushing Boko Haram back towards the Cameroun and Niger borders. Boko Haram follows the Maoist dictum- ‘The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy stops, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats we pursue’-precisely retreating as Nigerian and allied forces attacked, harassing with IEDs, ambushes and spoiling attacks whenever they paused.


The trajectory of the conflict closely mirrors Gen Giap’s experience in the Indochina War against the French when he initially shifted from guerrilla operations to conventional in 1951 suffering heavy defeats and then reverting back to guerrilla warfare, with limited conventional operations until 1953, when he went back on the offensive, eventually defeating the French not through a decisive victory but with a strategic victory at Dien Bien Phu which convinced the French they could not win. He repeated the trick with the Tet Offensive against the US in 1968 which was an overwhelming military failure but a strategic success as it was launched at a time when the US and South Vietnamese were creditably claiming to have defeated the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese.

So what does this tell us about the enemy’s future actions?

  • Boko Haram is not defeated: Maoist theory, military logic and common sense is clear on this, under constant attack the enemy has retreated. Whenever the opportunity has presented itself the enemy has attacked in Yobe, Borno, Cameroun and Niger Republic. Despite the loss of their IED networks they still attempt at least once a week to launch IED attacks in urban areas. In this context the attacks on Marte, Mafa and Karamaga Island can be seen as spoiling attacks to try and interdict friendly supply lines or else divert troops or attention from their main theatre of operations.
  • Space for Time: The enemy has traded Space for Time but still has Will: A key indicator of a guerrillas will to fight are surrenders, defections and weapons seizures, although heavy weapons have been destroyed and captured, there have been limited surrenders or defections that are publicly known. Arms caches and IED factories have been overrun but the enemy still has sufficient capability to manufacture IEDs for tactical use and also to try and deploy them for terror operations.
  • The Attacks will continue: Mao opined ‘Even in defence all our efforts must be directed toward the resumption of the attack,’, whilst Boko Haram is fighting a defensive operation in the few areas it has left, other cells preferably as far away from the friendly main effort as possible will launch attacks be they IED, small arms or vehicle mounted fighters. The geographical spread has always been a function of Boko Haram operations even when highly concentrated in the 3 main north eastern states, IED attacks, ambushes, robberies or prison breaks always took place in far flung places. Dispersion, concentration, constant change of position, it is in these ways that guerrillas employ their strength’
  • Bases: What is critical is not to look to where Boko Haram is fighting but to where it is not. Whilst it is causing uproar in the west and north, the east is quiet. Cameroun has seen a reduction in attacks, yet local officials say villagers report an increase in cattle rustling and other thefts. Light skinned men in weapon mounted vehicles have been seen around the Cameroun/ Borno border and an operation to rescue IDPs in the Gwoza hills resulted in 12 dead people, who were attacked in the brief period between being escorted down the hill and transport arriving. This would indicate that not only are enemy units in the area they are preparing for a long battle and are still motivated enough tot carry out pointless attacks of little military value beyond terror


As can be seen Boko Harams methods demonstrate a clear knowledge if not experience of Maoist guerrilla tactics, particularly in the Shekau era. This is in itself is not that scandalous as virtually any insurgent group that wants to exist beyond its first few weeks will adopt tactics and procedures that have clearly worked for the weak against the strong. From an analytical point of view it renders the populist comparisons to Daesh moot as Boko Haram better resembles Mozambique’s RENAMO or Uganda’s LRA than Daesh or even Hezbollah or AQIM.

Mao identified that for a guerrilla force to prevail survival was paramount to everything else, thus it was acceptable to make accommodations with their adversaries (during the Chinese civil war the Communists formed several alliances with the Nationalists either for temporary truces or to defeat other warlords or the Japanese, likewise in Nigeria we have had the infamous ‘Danladi’ ceasefire), endure constant defeats, retreat from the enemy or hostile areas (the Communists undertook the Long March a 6,000 mile fighting withdrawal to escape Nationalist Armies). This focus on survival means that a guerrilla force can always trade space for time, during which with they will use their strong will to maintain structure and discipline in order to recuperate and counter attack. Guerrilla armies are not regulated by such things as elections, budgets or operational cycles. They can avoid or lose decisive battles, take or lose territory for the entire campaign if they so want, as the decisive action is simply to remain in the field up until and beyond the point their adversaries think the conflict is worth the price.

As long as Boko Haram retains any organisational or operational ability Boko Haram is not defeated.


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, Geopolitics, Nigeria Defence, Nigeria Strategy, Terrorism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Uproar in the East, Strike in the West: Boko Haram and the Maoist Way of War

  1. Owi says:

    Great analysis. It is always a joy to read your take on this situation. I pray that some of these issues are put into consideration at the highest levels of policy and decision making to ensure that the terrorist are effectively weakened and unable to ever recover.

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