Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. Picture: REUTERS/AFOLABI SOTUND
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. Picture: REUTERS/AFOLABI SOTUND

Abuja — Just 10 months after Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari declared a victory over Boko Haram, the Islamist militant group is stepping up attacks in the far north-east of the country.

Boko Haram militants deployed at least 80 children as "human bombs" this year, Mark Lowcock, the UN under secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said on Tuesday in the north-eastern city of Maiduguri, the group’s birthplace. The most spectacular attack occurred in July when the Islamist fighters targeted a state oil company research team, killing 48 people and seizing several hostages.

"This is a kind of pattern that’s unlikely to change very much for months to come," Malte Liewerscheidt, Nigeria analyst at London-based risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, said by phone. "It’s a constant thorn in Buhari’s flesh in the sense that one of his key promises when he was campaigning was that he’d deal with this problem."

The Nigerian government estimates that more than 20,000 people have died since Boko Haram, which is opposed to Western-style education, started an insurrection in 2009 to impose its version of Islamic law on Africa’s most populous nation. The number of people in need of food assistance in the country’s north-east, the epicentre of the violence, rose to 5.2-million from 4.7-million between March and June due to persistent insecurity, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Boko Haram has carried out 83 attacks so far this year, the same number as in all of 2016, while suicide bombings accounted for 27% of all assaults, up from 19% last year, according to Verisk Maplecroft.

Civilian protection

A key challenge the government faces is how to curb the attacks while increasing protection for civilians and aid workers, according to Nnamdi Obasi, West Africa analyst for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

"The government needs to drain the group’s membership, de-radicalise former members and counter extremist narratives," Obasi said. "Perhaps, more importantly, it needs to reverse the bad governance, economic desperation and social hopelessness that push so many youths to radical ideologues."

Army spokesman John Enenche didn’t immediately answer calls seeking comment.

"The Nigerian army has, all along, been involved in the restoration and construction of roads and bridges demolished by the terrorists to open up transportation routes in the north-east," Defence Headquarters said last month in a report on its website. "The Nigerian military is committed to eliminating terrorism from the north-east."

For people in the area, the humanitarian situation remains dangerous, according to the UN. "We have averted famine, but millions of people are still at risk if more international help is not forthcoming," Lowcock said on Wednesday at the end of a two-day visit.

Under military pressure from Nigeria and its neighbours, and facing internal dissent, Boko Haram is no longer the unified fighting force it was at the start eight years ago, according to security analysts including Liewerscheidt. There are now two principal factions, one led by Abubakar Shekau, that’s mainly active in southern Borno state; and the other led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi, which operates in the north around Lake Chad.

Al-Barnawi’s force has proved the more resilient, planning and executing attacks on military targets, including the ambush of the oil exploration team, while Shekau’s group, seemingly on the back foot, is relying more on suicide attacks, which include bombs strapped to children, Liewerscheidt said.

The government’s attention remains mostly on Shekau, who’s declared his loyalty to Islamic State. On July 22, army chief Tukur Buratai gave his troops 40 days to capture Shekau. "Even if they capture Shekau, it wouldn’t mean the uprising would be over," Liewerscheidt said. "These things typically don’t have a well-defined end point. They start petering out over time, and it’s very unlikely there’s going to be one last decisive action that puts this thing to rest."

Bloomberg

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