Boko Haram has moved in to control spaces vacated by the military in north-east Nigeria.
Last year, the Nigerian military started pulling soldiers out of villages, small unit formations and bases into bigger, stronger and better equipped camps. This ‘super camp strategy’ sought to bolster the military’s combat posture and enhance its resistance to Boko Haram attacks on its bases.
The approach has indeed improved the ability of the Nigerian military to counter Boko Haram, but it has also eroded the protection of civilians and their access to livelihoods.
The two Boko Haram factions – Jamā’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’wah wa’l-Jihād (JAS) and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) – are taking advantage of the space created by this new military strategy. They’re moving around more freely, deepening their roots in communities and strengthening their supply chains.
The violent extremists have increased their power over areas from which troops have withdrawn. In addition to its control of dozens of Lake Chad island villages, Boko Haram has erected arbitrary checkpoints and habitually attacked villages and travellers to run both territory and livelihood processes.
Extremists are moving around more freely, deepening their roots and strengthening supply chains.
This has worsened forced displacements and deprived civilians of their livelihoods. Travellers who spoke to the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) said Boko Haram had erected permanent checkpoints on several roads in Borno State, such as Maiduguri-Monguno, Monguno-Gajiram, Maiduguri-Damboa, Magumeri-Gubio, Chabbal-Magumeri, Gubio-Kareto, Kareto-Damasak, Damboa-Biu and others.
According to witnesses, Boko Haram seizes all official identification documents after stopping people at their checkpoints. While ISWAP targets only non-Muslim civilians for abduction, JAS doesn’t make this distinction. Both factions specifically target security forces, government officials and humanitarian workers, regardless of their religion.
Interviewees reported looting and extortion – food items, money, mobile phones and even clothes on people’s backs – and abduction for ransom. The terrorists seem to spare their victims’ lives and as a result, people continue using the roads. In this way, the group’s supply chain is maintained, especially since most roads lead to markets.
Sparing civilian lives is, however, not systematic, as cases involving the killings of passengers during or after robberies have been documented. On 13 October, five men and three elderly women from Gadai, a village in Gubio local government area, were taking their livestock and farm produce to the market in Gajiganna when 27 JAS fighters on motorcycles accosted them. The men were killed and the goods were taken. The women were left alive.
Similarly, on 3 November, travellers heading to Maiduguri were attacked by JAS fighters at Dogon Waya, between Mainok and Jakana in Konduga local government area. After they were robbed, five men and one woman were abducted. Two days later, the corpses of the five men were discovered by villagers at Dalwa in Konduga, along Damboa road.
Super camps are located away from civilian settlements, preventing a quick reaction when attacks occur.
Super camps are typically located away from civilian settlements, hampering the quick reaction capacity of the military when attacks on civilians occur. According to eyewitness accounts, on 7 November, ISWAP set up a checkpoint at Kijimatari village in Monguno local government area where they collected money, mobile phones and luggage from travellers.
They confiscated a vehicle heading to Maiduguri, loaded up their loot and moved on to Goram, a nearby village, to mount another checkpoint. They told villagers that they would continue to ‘collect’ from them but not kill them. The following day, the group attacked the two villages again. This fuels a feeling of helplessness and abandonment among communities who are increasingly at the mercy of Boko Haram’s abuses.
The terror group has adapted to the super camp context in other ways too. Members now use precision attacks and ambushes on military patrols and escorts because it is more difficult to successfully attack or overrun the large camps. They have also orchestrated some attacks targeting the Governor of Borno State, Babagana Umara Zulum.
The super camp approach has not stopped Boko Haram from targeting these strongholds, as seen with the unsuccessful attacks on Gajiram and Bitta super camps in October and November respectively.
While maintaining the impenetrability of super camps, the military must do more to protect civilians.
Military bases have served as major sources of weapons for Boko Haram in the past. Losing access to this supply will be a major setback that the group may not accept so easily. The military should remain vigilant, as Boko Haram factions could react with more sophisticated attacks on its super camps.
While maintaining the impenetrability of its super camps, the military must do more to protect civilians and avoid the perception that a tactical trade-off has been made between their own safety and that of communities.
According to the Nigerian army, the super camp concept aims to ‘ensure higher capacity for swift mobility to take on the adversary, take the fight to them and deny terrorists, bandits and kidnappers the freedom of action.’ This must resonate with communities through effective protection of civilians.