The effect of Boko Haram stockpiling weapons on the Lake Chad Basin

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An armored tank is seen abandoned along a road in Bazza town, after the Nigerian military recaptured it from Boko Haram, in Adamawa state, 10 May 2015/Credit: Akintunde Akinleye: Reuters
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Since Boko Haram’s emergence in the early 2000s, the security situation in the Lake Chad Basin region has worsened. Comprising Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger, the region is currently one of Africa’s most volatile and insecure spaces. Though Boko Haram started its operations in northeast Nigeria, they quickly spread to the other three countries, owing to porous borders and practical, ideological and religious links between northern Nigeria and those neighbouring countries, especially Niger and Chad.

In mid-2010, Boko Haram attacks against security agents started in a hit-and-run style, often using motorcycles. They would attack a police checkpoint, whereby the pillion rider would kill officers on duty and run away with their weapons. But today, the group has grown in boldness, number and size, and is now one of the four most deadly terrorist organisations globally.  Not only has Boko Haram increased human rights abuses against civilians, but it has also brazenly attacked the military.

In recent times, Boko Haram and its allies, the Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP), have been attacking military bases with high frequency and seems to be enjoy consistent successes. One consequence of these raids is that terrorist groups have been able to take away military weapons. In turn, this raises serious questions about whether the growing stockpile of arms will exacerbate the existing humanitarian crisis, which has caused the tens of thousands of deaths, mass forced migration, and food insecurity.

The Extent of Weapons Stockpiling

According to an ongoing study covering more than 100 attacks on the military, “Boko Haram has overrun fixed sites of companies and battalions in all four countries.” Every successful attack on the armed forces leaves the extremists richer in arms and reduces the military’s firepower. This situation calls for a serious re-think by political and military leaders in the region.

In April, members of Boko Haram and ISWAP showed off various kinds of military operational Hilux vehicles and armoured tanks stolen from Nigerian soldiers when they attacked an Army location at 156 Battalion in Mainok area of Borno state. Unfortunately, such displays are fast becoming commonplace, especially in Nigeria. In 2018, ISWAP also gloated about confiscating four military tanks and other vehicles after its attack on the Metele base of the Nigerian army, which left over 40 soldiers dead.

Since the beginning of the year, the insurgents have reportedly killed hundreds of soldiers. In the Mainok attack, more than 30 soldiers lost their lives. In March, around 33 were killed in Wulgo, Borno state, when the jihadists rammed two explosive-laden vehicles into a military convoy. And in February, about 20 soldiers died during an attack on a base in Malari, also in Borno State.

From these attacks, Boko Haram fighters have netted thousands of assorted rifles and firearms, millions of rounds of ammunition, and hundreds of military vehicles, including self-propelled artillery and armoured tanks. They have also carted away non-lethal materials, such as petrol, uniforms, and communications equipment. While governments in the region, especially Nigeria, have consistently downplayed the crisis, this cache of weapons is particularly worrying because it demonstrates that Boko Haram has the capacity to fight a long and bloody war.

Displacement

The incessant attacks have taken a big toll on both the military and civilian populations. On the armed forces, this includes low morale and reported instanced of desertion. There have been reports of protests by Nigerian troops due to obsolete equipment and unpaid allowances.

The civilian impact has also been severe. The arms that have been stockpiled allow for frequent attacks and it is now estimated that Boko Haram has killed over 36,000 persons and is one of a number of reasons that millions of people currently find themselves displaced. It has also affected civilians’ trust in the armed forces, giving rise to vigilante groups in many communities – an approach that could escalate the already fragile situation.

Around 12.5 million people in the Lake Chad Basin region are in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations. The region is home to more than 3 million internally displaced persons – 2.9 million in north-eastern Nigeria and around 684,000 in Cameroon, Chad and Niger. Many of these forced displacements are strongly linked to Boko Haram, which is said to be responsible for nearly 2.4 million of the total.

Boko Haram’s involvement in the displacement of civilians has thus exacerbated the long-standing refugee crisis in Africa. Sadly, children aren’t spared, as they bear some of the greatest burdens from the conflicts. The situation has created a huge learning gap between these children and their peers in other places. Reports show that 1.5 million children are either internally displaced or refugees, and that more than 420,000 children below five years old are also at risk of severe acute malnutrition.

A further 400,000 children have been negatively academically impacted due to the closures of over 1,000 schools in the region.

Inspiring Copy-Cats

In addition to the challenges created by Boko Haram itself, various other armed groups have learned dangerous lessons from the success of its actions and tactics. This has further stretched the armed forces and other security agencies.

There are said to be continued connections, for example, between Boko Haram and other militia groups in the region, especially in northern Nigeria. According to the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), these ties date back many years. In a 2014 video titled “Message to Fulanis”, the then Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau expressed gratitude to fighters in Katsina State and other places. In June 2020, a similar message was sent to fighters in Zamfara and Niger States, who returned their “greetings” to Shekau weeks later.

These connections and the failure of the security forces to curtail Boko Haram’s activities have encouraged the proliferation of conflict in the region. In the past six years, all three geographical regions in northern Nigeria (northeast, northwest, and north-central) have experienced considerable unrest and instability, which in turn has contributed to Nigeria moving from a score of 94.4 on the Fragile States Index in 2006 to 97.27 index in 2020 (higher scores = more fragile).

A Worsening Picture

Nigeria was recently ranked third on the global terrorism index sitting closely to Iraq and Afghanistan at the top of the list. In addition to the loss of life, the insurgency continues to drain government resources. In 2018, the Nigerian government approved $1 billion to purchase military weapons, mainly to fight Boko Haram. But with the recent incessant attacks on military locations, a number of these arms have already ended up in the insurgents’ camp.

Worse still, the stockpiling of weapons suggests that things will get worse before they get better. Although Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau was killed in May, some have argued that the removal of the notoriously rigid and secretive leader will represent an even bigger challenge for the Nigerian government. The organisation that appears to have been responsible for his death, the Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP), is said to be more flexible and hence potentially more effective. Having been part of Boko Haram before it broke away five years ago, ISWAP may therefore be better placed to continue the war, further undermining the prospects for peace and stability – especially if they are able to take over Boko Haram’s fighters and weaponry.

Olusegun Akinfenwa is a correspondent for Immigration News, a news organisation affiliated with Immigration Advice Service (IAS).

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