As opposition supporters celebrated Muhammadu Buhari’s election as Nigerian president on Wednesday, questions were being raised about the former general’s strategy for defeating the Islamist Boko Haram insurgency in the north-east of the country.
Boko Haram violence has forced more than a million people to flee their homes and many are hopeful that Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) victory will contribute to the extremists’ downfall.
It remains unclear, however, how the future president will deal with the Islamist sect but also with security forces that have repeatedly been tarnished by corruption and rights-violations charges.
“One of the things Buhari will try to do when he becomes president is reform the military,” explained anthropologist Adam Higazi, a King’s College researcher. “He’s in a very good position to do that because he’s a former military general and the insurgency has exposed many problems within the military from top to bottom.”
Although Nigerian security forces – and partners from neigbouring Niger, Cameroon and Chad – appear to have weakened Boko Haram fighters in past weeks, much remains to be done before they are finally defeated. Soldiers have often told journalists and researchers that they were ill-equipped to deal with the better-armed Islamist combattants.
For Nigerian troops Buhari’s victory is likely to be a shot in the arm, according to observers who believe their situation could hardly be worse.
“Morale in the Nigerian army has been rock bottom,” said Higazi in a phone interview from the border area between Nigeria and Cameroon, where hundreds of thousands of Nigerians have found shelter.
The APC win may also foster greater confidence among ordinary people in the predominantly Muslim north. Yau Zakary, an analyst with the Centre for Information Technology and Development in Kano, a Buhari stronghold, believes that many in the worst affected states, Borno, Adamawa and Yobe, will now be more open to cooperating with security forces – not a minor detail.
“You need the knowledge of ordinary citizens to be able to flush out the insurgents,” he explained in a phone interview. “Until you are able to undercut their recruitment base, you will have a continuous resurgence of the insurgency. You need, not a military solution, but a political and social solution.”
Boko Haram’s best allies, many have argued, have been soaring unemployment and weak state institutions.
Some analysts believe the group will collapse when its funding is cut off. Petrol, diesel and fish smugglers have been crisscrossing north-eastern Nigeria and the insurgentts have been taking their cut.
“Before the elections there were comments that [Buhari] is willing to take a more proactive stance to Boko Haram, which is more than what we’ve seen,” observed Sasha Jesperson, a researcher with Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies. “This should include targeting somes avenues of support that they have – their financing by cutting off of the transport links.”
Government efforts to take on Boko Haram may get a boost 11 April when Nigerians go to the polls to elect governors.
Buhari’s APC is likely to sweep to power in the embattled north-eastern states. This could foster greater cooperation – and put an end to what analyst Zakary calls “inter-party competition” – between powerful state governors and the federal government.
Hopes that the conflict, which has led to the deaths of at least 15,000 people, should soon end came as the UN Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein told the UN Human Rights Council Wednesday that the violence was “despicable and wanton carnage”.