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Boko Haram: Government Silence Does Little to Inspire Confidence

The Nigerian government's silence and distraction tactics over recent Boko Haram attacks contributes to its perception of ineptness.
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Nigerian soldiers training with the US Marines. Photograph by U.S. Marine Corps/Sgt. Marco Mancha.

When the Nigerian government declared a state of emergency in three north-east states of Adamawa, Yobe and Borno in May 2013, many hoped that it would swiftly bring the Islamist militants Boko Haram under control. An estimated 3,000 troops were deployed to join the already 5,000 troops under the Joint Task Force (JTF) operating in the region, deadlines were set, and initial statements − particularly that the group's leader Abubakar Shekau may have been killed − suggested the government was making progress.

However, a few months later, the government's deadline for ending the insurgency has come and gone, Shekau has re-emerged in videos announcing he is still alive and coordinating attacks, and Boko Haram stepped up its deadly assaults once again. Many Nigerians now believe the government is not winning the battle and is moving two steps back for every one step forwards.

Delays, distractions, and deadlines

Since Boko Haram's assault on the Air Force base in Maiduguri in December 2013, the group has increased its activity in Borno and Adamawa states, eroding any gains the government claimed to have made in driving the group underground. Most recently, attacks in Mailari, Kodunga and Izge in Borno State led to the deaths of at least 60 people − though in the absence of credible sources, the real figure could be higher as the state's governor has suggested − and 20 girls were abducted. This is not the first time that the group has abducted girls, and Human Rights Watch has highlighted the growing trend of such activities by Boko Haram, but this particular incident attracted international attention with the US and UN both issuing statements condemning the attacks and urging the government to make all efforts to find the girls.

However, the government's response to the increasing violence in recent months has been poor, and little information has emerged from official sources regarding either the attacks or what the government's action will be. Statements from the Ministry of Defence have simply contained the usual rhetoric of claiming that it has the upper hand against the group and that the recent attacks were a way for the group to seek attention.

Because of a tendency for the government to restrict both the frequency and availability of information regarding operations for apparent ‘security reasons’, Nigerians have come to rely less and less on official sources for information regarding its military activities. This is not unusual for Nigeria, but the 48-hour silence over the multiple attacks in Kodunga recently and the general deterioration of the situation in the region has increased calls for government to provide more information regarding its operations.

The government has responded, however, with either continued silence or attempts to deflect from the real issues. Rather than address the problems, the federal government is currently caught up in a war of words with the Governor of Borno State, Kashim Shettima.

Earlier this month, Shettima, obviously frustrated by the attacks and lack of effective government response, claimed that unless more troops and resources were deployed to the state, the well-armed Boko Haram would be "absolutely impossible" to defeat. These remarks provoked strong backlash from the presidency, with spokesperson Doyin Okupe insisting the army was well-prepared to deal with the group and that the governor was ill-equipped to make an assessment of the army’s capacity. This began a continued exchange between the two that has managed to divert the focus from the attacks, the victims and the abducted girls, once again politicising what is a national issue in need of a speedy resolution.

Militarisation and the media

Part of the government's reason for heavily filtering information about attacks and its strategies derives from its desire to control the narrative and to avoid giving Boko Haram the media attention it craves. However, this lack of information also dents the government's credibility and public trust in the military's operations. Coupled with ongoing attacks, the government's silence merely seems to confirm the popular perception that the government has been largely inept in tackling the insurgency.

Some have suggested that the government's decision to replace the heads of the arms of the military earlier this year allowed the insurgents to launch the recent attacks. However, this has been denied by the Director of Defence Information (DDI), Major General Chris Olukolade, and the government seems committed to continuing this as a strategy. It has even been rumoured that President Goodluck Jonathan wants to go a step further by replacing the Governor of Borno State with a retired military officer, though the government has also denied this and tried to assure Nigerians that it is committed to the rule of law and the constitution.

Whether the government is being wholly honest in refuting those allegations remains to be seen, but given the lack of meaningful military success so far, a trend of further militarisation does not bode well. If the government continues this strategy, the end of the Boko Haram insurgency might be a long way away with many more losses to be seen on both sides.

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