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Boko Haram: Separating Fact from Fiction – Professor Hussein Solomon

November 1, 2014


Boko Haram: Separating Fact from Fiction

by Hussein Solomon

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 2 (2014), Number 12 (November 2014)

For analysts trying to understand the relative strengths and impact of the Islamists of Boko Haram in Nigeria, it is important to separate fact from fiction. To put it differently both local and external actors deliberately lie to talk up their own “successes” whilst playing down any advances by the militants. Consider here the recent announcement by French General Jean-Pierre Palasset who heads up France’s Operation Barkhane – a 3,000 strong force attempting to take on Islamist militants in the Sahel – that Boko Haram’s strength has peaked[i]. Clearly, it is in the general’s own interest to talk down the threat posed by terrorists given France’s own failed military adventures in the region. Despite the French ousting the Islamists from northern Malian towns like Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu, these militants have found refuge in southern Libya and from there have engaged in asymmetric warfare resulting in greater regional destabilization.

Not to be outdone by the French in making absurd claims, the Nigerian military announced the killing of Boko Haram’s leader – Abubakar Shekau in the town of Konduga near the Cameroonian border in September 2014 – only for a video to surface with the reclusive Boko Haram leader to proclaim he was still alive[ii]. Whilst Nigeria’s military claim that the person in the video was not Shekau but an imposter, the truth is that the Nigerian government does not seem to want to deal with the uncomfortable truth that Boko Haram is institutionalized enough and have gained sufficient momentum to function with or without Shekau. After all, following the killing of its founder, Mohammed Yusuf in 2009, the group has grown even more powerful.

Last month, too, the Nigerian government announced that there was a ceasefire with Boko Haram, and soon the 200 schoolgirls seized by the group in Chibok in April will be released whilst negotiations were on-going with the group. The announcement of a ceasefire and the release of the schoolgirls took place a day before a major electoral rally by the ruling party. Indeed, the announcement seemed more about boosting President Goodluck Jonathan’s electoral prospects than about fighting terrorism. If there was indeed a ceasefire in place, clearly the memo did not reach Boko Haram as they captured town after town. In September, Boko Haram seized Michika. Then it was the turn of Kukawa, 180 kilometres from the Borno state capital of Maiduguri then it was the turn of Mubi in Adamawa state, the headquarters of the 234th Battalion. What did the soldiers do in the face of the Boko Haram’s onslaught? They fled yet again, leaving hapless citizens to the mercy of Boko Haram[iii].

In each of these cases, Boko Haram demonstrated superior tactics and brought heavy firepower to bear – outgunning and outmanoeuvring Africa’s largest armed forces – the Nigerian military. Indeed it must have been particularly galling for Nigerian’s Chief of Defence Staff, Alex Badeh, to have his home town of Vintim under the control of Boko Haram[iv]. Indeed, Boko Haram now controls at least 20 major towns in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states[v].

Given their recent military successes, it is hard to miss the triumphalist tone struck by Shekau in a recent video – claiming that the Nigerian jet which went missing on September 12 was downed by Boko Haram. In the accompanying footage a jet wing is shown riddled with bullet holes – suggesting that Boko Haram has now access to anti-aircraft guns[vi]. In addition, Shekau makes clear that the 200 schoolgirls will not be released as they have been converted to Islam and have been married off. In addition he rejects any ceasefire with the government now or in the future. Even more worryingly, Boko Haram increasingly seems to draw inspiration from ISIS – talking of an Islamic caliphate over the territories they now control.

What has the reaction been from the Nigerian government given these developments? Adamawa State Governor Bala Ngillari called on people to be calm and that the Nigerian security forces were on top of the situation![vii]


[i] “French general see reduced threat,” Reuters, 26 October 2014.

[ii] Adam Taylor, `Dead’ Boko Haram leader tell Nigeria: `I’m still alive’,” AFP, 2 October, 2014.

[iii] “Boko Haram Seize Mubi, Sack Army Headquarters,” Sahara Reporters, 29 October 2014. New York. Internet: Date accessed: 1 November 2014.

[iv] “Update: Boko Haram seizes Mubi, kills many, “ Premium Times, 29 October 2014. Internet: Date accessed: 1 November 2014.

[v] Aminu Abubakar, “Boko Haram attacks commercial hub in Nigeria’s Adamawa state,” AFP 29 October 2014. Internet: Date accessed: 1 November 2014.

[vi] Jacob Zenn and Allen Grane, “Five Reasons to Pay Attention to Boko Haram’s Latest Video,” Defense One, 7 October. 2014. Internet: Date accessed: 1 November 2014.

[vii] “Update: Boko Haram seized Mubi, kills many,” op. cit.

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