By Rafiu Ajakaye
Experts yet again doubt tall claims made by the Nigerian president and the military that the war against Boko Haram has been won.
President Muhammadu Buhari announced last Saturday the capture of the Boko Haram’s historic fortress, the Sambisa Forest, a feat which his critics and admirers admitted was cheery news amid biting economic realities.
The infamous militant camp used to be hugely fortified with military-grade bunkers and an underground tunnel believed to be a long-standing hideout for Boko Haram’s top echelons. But Nigerian troops eventually managed to seize it following an operation that took months to plan.
When the Nigerian troops announced it had overrun the militant stronghold in Sambisa Forest, Buhari said: “I am delighted at, and most proud of the gallant troops of the Nigerian army, on receipt of the long-awaited and most gratifying news of the final crushing of Boko Haram terrorists in their last enclave in Sambisa Forest.”
Soon after reports emerged about the army relocating some 3,000 displaced people back to Damasak in northern Borno, another epicenter of the insurgency where top army officers were killed two months ago. A local commentator called the news “the best ever” in a year plagued by an unfavorable economic situation.
The forest where the army declared itself victorious is estimated to be roughly 6,000 square kilometers (around 2,317 square miles) and spanning five local government areas of Borno State.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we have won the war. We need to win the peace,” Maj.-Gen. Leo Irabor, commander of the troops fighting the insurgents, told a news briefing in Maiduguri, the capital city of Borno, on Wednesday.
Holes in official narrative
Since the declarations of victory have been made, analysts have pointed out various holes in the official narrative.
For example, they raised questions about the army commander's claims his troops recovered a flag and a copy of the Quran that was supposedly abandoned by Boko Haram factional chief Abubakar Shekau "while he escaped”.
Analysts said such comments discredit earlier claims that Shekau had been long killed or dead from injuries.
In fact, Shekau appeared in a new video Thursday, saying he and his fighters were safe, and not crushed as claimed by Nigerian authorities.
Freedom Onuoha, analyst at the University of Nigeria Nsukka, said the dislodging of the militants had marked a major success in the anti-Boko Haram war but he warned against an early victory dance.
“Given the fact there is no evidence of total annihilation of the militants in that battlefield, I expect the survivors to hunker down for a while in order to re-strategize for a different wave of attacks,” Onuoha told Anadolu Agency.
The expert also spoke of fears of new attacks on “soft targets” in urban and population centers. “Such a new phase will require intensifying intelligence gathering and special operations forces for proactive and timely response to such incidents. I don't think we can put off the switch and go to bed hoping that the insurgency is over,” he added.
Also, he pointed out the recent suicide bombing at a cattle market in Maiduguri that killed only the bomber, just 24 hours after the president's victory over Boko Haram statement, spoke volumes about the need to not celebrate yet.
Multiple militant bases
Ryan Cummings, a Johannesburg-based security analyst, said the narratives about Boko Haram's defeat raise a lot of questions, particularly when the group is known to have established bases and launched attacks across neighboring nations.
“It is also notable that the dismantlement of the Sambisa base has, at least of yet, not culminated with the capture of Abubakar Shekau, Mamaan Nur, [Abu] Musab al-Barnawi or the recovery of any of the remaining Chibok hostages,” Cummings told Anadolu Agency.
Al-Barnawi, scion of the late group leader Mohamed Yusuf, is a leader of a Boko Haram faction and is also said to be recognized by Daesh. Shekau and Al-Barnawi are now said to be fighting each other, with each side accusing the other of going astray, according to locals privy to the development within their ranks.
He also pointed out that while it is true the Sambisa Forest is now in the hands of the army, there is no word about the whereabouts of key Boko Haram commanders on the government’s wanted list.
“Had the Sambisa base been of significant strategic and definitive value to Boko Haram, one would have thought that the liberation of this and the rest of the forest would have culminated with the neutralization of high ranking members and the recovery of the Chibok hostages,” Cummings noted.
“Alas, this has not proved to be the case which should raise questions regarding whether Boko Haram has indeed been crushed in Nigeria,” he added.
Increase in attacks
Last year, the government had made a similar announcement about a technical defeat against the militants, which was then followed by an increase in attacks on troops and suicide bombings.
In remarks made during an interview with BBC Hausa Service on Dec. 24, 2015, Buhari said: "Boko Haram has reverted to using improvised explosive devices (IEDs)....Indoctrinating young guys, they have now been reduced to that. But articulated conventional attacks on centers of communication and populations, they are no longer capable of doing that effectively.
“So I think, technically, we have won because people are going back into their neighborhoods."
However, in a report released early December, a local data agency IBM Intelligence said at least 240 civilians had been killed in various Boko Haram attacks in 2016 alone. Also, at least 45 soldiers were reported missing following an attack on Oct. 17.