The war against the Boko Haram insurgency from the very start has been plagued by a severe lack of credible information and well formed understandings, both from the government side and from the insurgency. In the absence of credible information, analysts, so called experts, and even policy makers in the West, were forced to rely on speculations, assumptions, and tainted information to reach conclusions. The information situation only worsened as the propaganda war between the Nigerian government( and its MNJTF allies) and the insurgents took flight, until it has gotten to the point where very little information filters into the open source domain that is not a propaganda piece.
Currently the general perception of events in the Lake Chad is one of a heavily degraded, almost defeated Boko. This is a greatly distorted and completely off the mark understanding as I discussed here where I broke down the current state of the war and the various layers in it, which sometimes cause outside observers to make wrong assumptions.
This perception has been aided by government propaganda completely dominating the news space, and scarce independent information of the on the ground state of things available in the public domain. The Lake Chad governments have made it a priority to ensure that the only reportage on the Boko Haram conflict, is their propaganda. To this end they have been carrying out a campaign of intimidating those with independent access to information regarding the state of things, subverting the media with bribes, security agencies, and arrests, preventing access to researchers. They even went as far as to subtly threaten humanitarian organizations with expulsion when they tried to draw global attention to the brewing humanitarian crisis in the region, thus forcing their silence as the aid agencies know that if they are expelled, the local governments have no capacity or even willingness to assume the enormous responsibility of providing medical and food aid to the millions of starving people affected by this conflict, many of them women and little children.
Yet behind these massive walls of government and even insurgent propaganda, the reality is bleak for the hundreds of thousands living in insurgent controlled territories, the hundreds of thousands more living in the IDP and refugee camps, and the millions of internally displaced that are not living in the camps. Despite the rosy pictures of a normal life after Boko Haram, a technically defeated Boko Haram, and even a Boko Haram engaged in internicine fighting between the two IS-alligned groups ISWAP and Jamaa’atu Ahlis-Sunnah Lid-Da’wati Wal-Jihad (news of this ‘fighting’ was rushed to the press by AFP based on interviews with government agents including the Civilian JTF which is not a very credible source for internal issues within Boko Haram), all carefully crafted propaganda put out by the Nigerian security services, gradually news is filtering out of the bleak humanitarian situation, and the security situation outside Maiduguri and its immediate environs.
The recent article by Ulf Laessing, the Reuters Bureauc Chief in Abuja, Nigeria, after his trip to Bama from Maiduguri the Borno State capital, highlights the danger posed by insurgent units active in the rural areas and bushes on both sides of roads connecting towns supposedly liberated and fully secured by the Nigerian Army. The insecurity and danger on that road as described by Ulf Laessing, is the reality faced on many so called liberated stretches of roads in Central and Northern Borno (to a lesser extent Southern Borno), and Northern and Southeast Yobe state.
If heavily armed military convoys carrying white journalists have to drive at high speed and firing truck or armoured vehicle mounted 12.57mm machine guns into the bushes on both sides of the road out of fear of running into an insurgent ambush, non stop except to change bandoliers and feed more bullets into the barrels, then what chance do civilian traffic carrying food from rural areas to Maiduguri without the same level of military escort provided to white journalists stand? None. Yet Maiduguri must import 95% and supplies of its food needs from outside, utilising the same roads which are for the most part not as secured as the Nigerian government would want people to believe.
This was what months ago the insurgents said they wanted to create, a situation where they will control the rural areas directly or via terror flooding the government controlled towns with displaced people needing food and aid, while at the same time making the roads insecure and thus reducing the towns to dire straits as food and supplies will be in scarce supply. The insurgent strategy for an eventual capture of Maiduguri which they admit will do severe morale damage to to the other side at high costs for them, is predicated upon flooding the metropolis with displaced people from all over the region fleeing there for safety and security from the insurgency, and then starving it at a relatively inexpensive cost to them, before making a costly final assault to seize the city, as I explained months ago here.
The situation in Maiduguri is one in which a focus on the lack of the usual spectacular news headline-worthy Boko Haram bomb attacks ( in my previously mentioned article for The Kavlak Centre here I explained why the rate of terror attacks in urban areas have become scarce) has led to the ignoring of the much more strategically decisive war being fought in the countrysides and over the highways through which the city survives.
The effects of the emptying of the countrysides into Maiduguri and the general insecurity of the rural areas and roads leading to the metropolis from them, is seen in the desperate situation of the almost 5million inhabitants it now has, slightly more than triple the probably 1.5m residents it had pre-2009 Uprising. Food riots have on several occasions broken out in the metropolis, as food scarcities have hit the millions of displaced from the countrysides now resident in the city so badly, and yet the government’s response to the situation has left a lot more to be desired. People are driven to desperation, with some considering staying in Boko Haram controlled areas a better option to dying of hunger inside the relative safety of Maiduguri. Most of those who try to leave the city to go back to the insurgent controlled territories they fled from, are turned back by the Army, and in their anger and desperation at the lack of food and the lack of a government response, they have rioted.
The food riots and the reportage now in the main stream media of the dire humanitarian situation in the region, sheds light on what the current Nigerian Administration would prefer to keep in the dark, as it contradicts the rosy picture of a technical defeat and a war that has ended that the government has been trying to sell since 2015.
What we have are several insurgent organizations waging a quiet war which they want to draw out for as long as possible to force the government to give up the countrysides and settle for holding the towns and heavily fortifying them and make them difficult for the insurgents to capture while they i.e the insurgents will have freedom of mobility and operations in the rural areas, and be able to harass the roads connecting linking the towns with themselves and the rural areas, while emptying as much of the rural populations as possible into the fortified and presumed safe urban settlements, that would then be strained by the increased demand placed on resources that are getting scarce and scarcer due to the insecure roads.
So far this is playing out albeit too slowly for most observers to recognize all of it as part of one thought out plan (people ‘watching’ this conflict tend to focus on the dots, instead of the connection between them). The Nigerian and Nigerien and Cameroonians are in varying degrees doing what the insurgents are banking on that they will do, towns like Bama, Kolofata, Marwa/Maroua and Maiduguri are heavily garrisoned and fortified to be safe zones and garrison centres, rural populations then empty out of their areas fleeing Boko Haram terror for the relative safety of such areas, the Army and security services are then stretched thin maintaining the huge apparatus necessary to maintain the fortified state of the towns and also prevent infiltration by Boko Haram elements disguising as displaced persons, in addition to also dealing with other non-Boko Haram related security challenges across the rest of the country (Niger has to secure its northern territories against terrorist incursions from Libya and Mali, maintain the heavy security clamp it has on the neck of the supporters of the political opposition, Nigeria has to fight cattle-rustling, maintain stability in Plateau State, keep the peace in North Central Nigeria, fight Niger Delta militants, in addition to providing the police with support in many states across the country), this reduces the number of soldiers available to do other things.
Thus the numerous roads ‘opened’ are left vulnerable to harassment by the insurgents and supply convoys need heavy military escort to avoid being ambushed by the insurgents. This leads to less and less supplies reaching the ever increasing swarm of humanity in the safe areas, tensions rise, food riots break out, more soldiers are needed to maintain order, the circle goes on and on until the breaking point is reached where the government has to decide which towns it can afford to lose, so it can consolidate in more strategic urban settlements.
How Does The Government Beat This?
The first step is to admit that there is a huge problem, and stop with the pathetic attempts to bury everything it considers embarrassing under a huge wall of propaganda. Disinformation is allowed as a legitimate tactic of war, but burying the true state of things so they don’t embarrass you, while your citizens suffer is criminal. The government has to admit that there is a major problem in the humanitarian situation inn the region, then it must proceed to the second step, which is to seek help.
Help can be found from organizations such as the International Committee Of The Red Cross or ICRC and Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres or MSF. These tewo organizations have been at the fore front of providing assistance to displaced people and victims of this conflict. They understand the humanitarian situation far better than the local governments and are in the best position to run a well funded programme of assistance to the people of the region. The ICRC for example in a period in 2015 fed over 500,000 displaced people, and has so far registered over 2.5m displaced persons. The MSF in many cases is the only medical help available to millions of IDPs in Northeast Nigeria. They are the only medical support found in Banki Camp in Borno State right on the Cameroon border, in an area held by the Nigerian Army and cut off from the rest of the country, the only assumed safe way to reach it even for all but the most heavily armed convoys is via helicopter, and MSF does that flying in aid from the Cameroonian side of the the border. MSF runs a hospital in Maimusari area of Maiduguri that provides medical consultation to the thousands of IDPs in that area, there is no usable government medical facility around and the IDPs don’t trust the government doctors.
Getting MSF and the ICRC to help is easy, all the government has to do is give them free rein, put aside its political and bureaucratic considerations, and give them funding even if done discreetly so they can reach more people with food and medicines. A good way to start would be to stop trying to make them to take on military escorts when they go out into the field, and waive those 100,000 euros (N41million) customs duty fees tying down much needed humanitarian aid brought in by MSF meant for IDPs in Northeast Nigeria, at Onne Port in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.
Allowing these aid agencies to coordinate the humanitarian effort, will ensure that the IDPs get the food and other assistance that they require, and tensions over food scarcity will simmer down, and the cholera outbreak (now that the rains are coming) that most of the humanitarian community working in the region is afraid will hit the IDP camps and IDP population outside the camp because of a lack of drinking water, shelter, medicines combined with malnutrition, is averted. This at the end means, extra soldiers to maintain order because of angry hungry IDPs rioting over food, or seeking to return back to the hell of Boko Haram because they find the safe zones even worse, will be freed up for more essential duties.
Ultimately, all these depends on the government connecting the dots, realising that it is fighting a thinking enemy, and developing a strategy that out-thinks that enemy.