Review: Two Years After, Col. Antigha’s Treatise On Boko Haram Rings True
By Senator Iroegbu
It is not yet clear whether Boko Haram terrorists and their significant other, the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), will survive the renewed onslaught by Nigerian, Chadian and troops of other member countries of the Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) like they have done on several occasions in the past. It will be apt to remind that these terrorist groups have been declared crushed and defeated before only to re-emerge to wreck havoc on both civil and military targets.
Nevertheless, a 2018 analysis by the Chief of Military Press Information Officer, MNJTF, Col. Timothy Antigha, entitled: ‘Counter – Insurgency: The Broader Implications Of Recent Execution Of Boko Haram Commanders’ gave a different picture, which still holds true today. Most of the points, Antigha marshalled out in that article have been spot on and will be a reliable guide on predicting the prevalent as well as future trajectory of the insurgents.
Having stumbled on the article published in some key media platforms in October 2018, one cannot help but notice that it predicted the current internal strife plaguing Boko Haram and ISWAP as well as the fractious ideological pendulum that has swung to the detriment of the murderous groups at the moment. Here are key issues raised in the treatise.
In-fighting, leadership squabbles and factionalisation
When the MJTF Spokesperson penned down his article, there was “pandemonium in the enclaves of Boko Haram Terrorists (ISWAP camp), particularly, in the Lake Chad Area, due to infighting in the top echelon of the terrorist command structure”. This resulted in the execution of the moderate leaders like Mamman Nur in August 2018 and also, another commander, named Ali Gaga, who was assassinated in October of that year. According to sources, Mamman Nur’s offence was that he effected the release of over 106 Dapchi Girls. Even though he did this without releasing the lone Christian girl among them, Leah Sharibu, yet he was killed for not maximizing the full financial and other opportunities which the kidnap of the schoolgirls offered. On the other hand, Ali Gaga was found to be plotting an escape along with over 300 Boko Haram captives and subsequent surrender to the military.
Against this backdrop, the Nigerian Army Officer predicted that the then “executions in Boko Haram enclave are a clear evidence of emerging crisis of confidence, symptomatic of fundamental problems within the leadership and followership structures of the Boko Haram Terrorist Group”. He went ahead to list the broader implications of the executions to include factionalisation, ideological struggles, self-induced implosion, increased isolation of the terrorists and more clashes.
True to these predictions, the ISWAP camp in particular has remained an ever bloody theatre for coups and counter coups including the execution of Musab Al-Barnawi the son of Boko Haram founder, Mohammed Yusuf. Even though the Abubakar Shekau led Boko Haram group seem to have more stable leadership but it still has very fractured cells only united by their acts of terrorism.
The ascension of radicals, hardliners
The immediate observation made by Antigha was a protracted struggle between two subgroups; the moderates and the radicals which was a direct fall out of the cannibalism reflected in the execution of the moderate commanders; Mamman Nur and Ali Gaga.
Consequently, ISWAP which before 2018 had a more targeted approach to their madness was hijacked by the radicals more aligned to the “Shekau’s style of indiscriminate bloodletting” who are not willing to negotiate with the government.
Antigha noted that the hitherto maturity and calm disposition to the “orderly” conduct of ISWAP’s operations was ditched in favour of the “younger hardliners who feel their moderate style was stalling their ambitions”. This has imposed devastating consequences both within their camp and on the local populace since controlling proceedings with more indiscriminate killings, kidnappings, executions and unstable leadership.
Nevertheless, for the fact that these moderate leaders still have their followers who believed in their ideals and principles meant that the struggle for the control of ISWAP became even nastier and deadly that in March 2020 the HumAngle reported of a bloody coup that led to the execution of five Shura council members of ISWAP. They were reportedly killed by the group’s new leader, Lawan Abubakar, also called Ba Lawan.
Those killed in the ‘coup’ within the terrorist camp were also said to include the former leader of the group Abu Abdullahi Umar Al Barnawi aka Ba Idrisa.
“It is by far the most bloody and extensive move in the history of the group to behead its leadership crop in one fell swoop,” researchers and reporters on the Media and Terrorism collaborative project of Premium Times and HumAngle Media Foundation disclosed.
More indiscriminate attacks, killings, kidnappings
As was well noted by Antigha in 2018, the likely “fallout of the recent executions could be more Boko Haram skirmishes against defence forces and of course more attacks on soft targets in the area of operation”.
He however, noted that “the skirmishes would not be borne out of a desire by Boko Haram to gain any strategic or operational advantage; (the capacity is really not there) rather, the attacks will be driven by the need for some publicity by the radicals who have seized power in Boko Haram”.
This accounted for the increased and indiscriminate terrorist attacks as well as kidnappings and renewed executions between 2019 and 2020, the famous of which was the abduction and execution of Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) Chairman in Mubi, Adamawa State chapter. The upsurge also witnessed kidnapping and executions of military personnel, aid workers, students and other vulnerable individuals.
Isolation and implosion of ISWAP/Boko Haram
As was also predicted, the reckless attacks by hard-line elements of ISWAP and Boko Haram terrorists have effectively closed chapters for negotiations and isolated them from possible mediators. The latest was the two-pronged attacks that killed close to 50 Nigerian soldiers and over 70 Chadian forces which forced these nations and other members of the MNJTF to embark on what looks like a decisive offensive against their remnants.
It is no longer news how the Chadian troops under the command of President Idris Debby, led a successful onslaught to annihilate ISWAP fighters and bases in some of their safe havens in the Lake Chad islands. To make matters worse, the Nigerian Armed Forces with the ground troops currently commandeered by the Chief of Army Staff (COAS), Lt-Gen. Tukur Buratai, with the support of the Air Task Force of the Operation Lafiya Dole, are on the verge of finishing the terrorists from where the Chadians left off.
Apart from the military losses, Boko Haram terrorists as revealed by the infighting and leadership squabbles above, are also suffering from self implosion.
There is no doubt that the group has shown high degree of resilience and reinvention, but their structural flaws are being exposed by both external and internal forces staked against them that it might be difficult to recover and reorganise themselves in a foreseeable future except if the Nigerian Armed Forces eased the ongoing chokehold.
Antigha had also posed some vital questions in 2018 of which the answers would be relevant at the moment. Arising from these developments, said, the pertinent questions to ask are; “Is Boko Haram’s strategy of pillage, aggravated indiscriminate killings and mass hostage-taking becoming a liability? Is the terrorist group having difficulties rallying its commanders around this strategy? Are there prospects of an implosion within Boko Haram’s command echelon?”
In providing answers to these questions, he concluded that “it does appear that the consequence of its (Boko Haram and ISWAP) one-decade campaign of terror against the very people it claims to be fighting for has come. The signs are there at every turn. Boko Haram’s support system among the populations has snapped under the weight of an endless and meaningless insurgency.
“Currently, Boko Haram must carry out raids of communities around its enclaves to obtain food and other supplies. This suggests that Boko Haram’s anti-people strategy has created alienation and loss of goodwill.”
No way out for Boko Haram and ISWAP?
Cornered on all side by Maj-Gen. Ibrahim Yusuf led MNJTF, Nigerian, Chadian and Nigerien forces, is it now time to assume that Boko Haram terrorists have come to their wits end? This is increasingly looking likely despite the fact that the insurgents have developed both intricately sophisticated as well as simplified ways of survival as exemplified by Salkida Ahmad’s report on April 27, 2020 entitled: ‘How Boko Haram Sustain Operations Through International Trade in Smoked Fish’
The report also agreed with Col. Antigha’s verdict with its damning conclusions, noting that a “carefully woven economic network created by ISWAP may have collapsed temporarily or permanently, considering that recent military onslaught on the insurgents by Chadian forces may have disrupted the very foundations of that economy.”
The report by HumAngle noted that “the March 23 assault under which the Chadian forces routed the positions of the insurgents in the Lake Chad communities may have put paid to the economic lifelines of the terror groups”.
Like Antigha had anticipated waning public support, the report also noted that “a clinical and silent campaign of identifying and eliminating suspected insurgents by members of the public was gaining popularity across major Chadian towns and cities.
“Speaking concerning the implications of the sudden hostilities by Chadians against the insurgents, a source who is familiar with the cover that ISWAP and Boko Haram members had received in Chad, told HumAngle that ‘it will limit the group’s access to essential goods that are smuggled daily to the fighters.”
From all indications, the ball is now in the Court of the Nigerian Military and the supporting forces of the MNJTF to either finish of the insurgents or allow the insurgency to survive and fester to a foreseeable future.
Iroegbu is a media practitioner, security and public affairs analyst. He can be reached on email@example.com.