The end of Boko Haram?

(To Andrea Gaspardo)

If 2023 is shaping up for Western chancelleries as "the year of the intensification of the Russo-Ukrainian War", for African ones it could instead go down in history as "the year of the beginning of the end of a nightmare".

When it comes to religious and interfaith violence, it is inevitable that Nigeria is one of the first examples that spring to mind. A demographic giant inhabited by over 230 million inhabitants speaking more than 500 regional languages ​​and held together only by the English language, Nigeria has been, since its foundation as an independent state, characterized by violent clashes of both an ethnic and religious nature which have pitted against each other the Nigerians of the most disparate backgrounds.

Let me be very clear; Nigeria's internal conflicts are not solely of a religious nature (!) and very often have to do with much more prosaic reasons such as the division of arable and grazing lands between the various sedentary and semi-nomadic groups that populate the territories far from the big cities , as happened in pre-colonial times when the African lands were subject to a practically permanent state of war.

However, it is also true that in a country divided almost perfectly in half between Christians and Muslims and characterized by rapid literacy (according to the United Nations in 2018 62% of the population was literate, with the percentage of the male population at 71,3% and that of women at 52,7%) which has the natural effect of the disintegration of traditional archaic social structures and the acceleration of internal movements with the inevitable social reshuffles, religion ends up turning into a dangerous power multiplier of internal tensions, with the risk of catastrophic outbreaks of violence.

The last of these "magmatic eruptions" began in 2009 when, with the death of its charismatic leader, Ustaz Mohammed Yusuf, the organization he created, Jamā'at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da'wah wa'l-Jihād , commonly known as “Boko Haram”, started a violent insurrection against the Nigerian state which in 14 years resulted in nearly 400.000 dead.

Leader of Boko Haram after Yusuf's death he was until his death in battle in 2021, Abu Mohammed Abubakar al Sheikawi, commonly known by the war name of Abubakar Shekau. For years, the Sunni-Salafi group has spread terror in north-eastern Nigeria starting from its sanctuary located in the tangled forest of Sambisa, expanding the range of its activities also to neighboring countries in the areas inhabited by people of the same Kanuri ethnic group who make up the absolute majority of members of the organization and therefore more likely to be co-opted. Yet the relative success of Boko Haram it was also the premise of its decline because it prompted all the states of the area to join forces to organize an effective counterinsurgency campaign.

In 2015 the states of Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Benin decided to join forces with those that Nigeria had already deployed on the territory by creating the so-called Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) which over the years and receiving aid and military training from the more disparate international partners and not always on good terms with each other (United States, United Kingdom, France, Italy, Israel, Iran, Russia, China, just to name a few), has evolved to become an effective instrument of anti-guerrilla warfare in capable not only of garrisoning the territory but also of pursuing the Islamic guerrillas right to their most remote sanctuaries. Not only that, as well as with the forces deployed by the countries of the area, Boko Haram he also had to deal with the progressive growth of the influence of the so-called Islamic State on African soil.

In the period between 2015 and 2016, the astute Abubakar Shekau had in fact thought of taking advantage of the rise of ISIS worldwide to attract aid and also extend its range of action in the lands of its own interest (the aforementioned areas of traditional dwelling of the Kanuri people). Yet relations soon deteriorated and Shekau earned the "excommunication" from the undisputed leader of the Islamic State, ʾIbrāhīm ʿAwwād ʾIbrāhīm ʿAlī Muḥammad al-Badrī as-Sāmarrāʾī, better known to the general public under the nom de guerre of ʾAbū Bakr al-Baḡdādī. This "excommunication" had given the right to the birth of a "split" rib within Boko Haram which in 2016 had taken the name of Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP) under the leadership of the charismatic Abu Musab al-Barnawi.

Although the sources regarding the life of al-Barnawi are not unique (some believe him to be the son of the original founder of Boko Haram, Ustaz Mohammed Yusuf, but others do not) it is however true that he proved to be an excellent strategist and a character capable of attracting consensus, given that the political-terrorist creature he created was soon able to walk on his legs and subtract expansion space to the same Boko Haram.

Thus squeezed between two fires (on one side the forces of Multinational Joint Task Force and on the other those of the Islamic State of West Africa Province) in the last 7 years the Salafist organization has done nothing but lose ground, slowly but surely.

The death of Abubakar Shekau, who blew himself up by activating his explosive vest on May 19, 2021, in order not to fall into the hands of the forces of his hated enemy al-Barnawi, then contributed to further weakening the organization.

According to a report published on March 14, 2023 by Global Terrorism Index (GTI), throughout 2022 Boko Haram it was responsible for 6 terrorist attacks which caused the death of 63 people while in the same period ISWAP's activity grew causing 40 attacks which caused 168 deaths. Certainly, despite everything Boko Haram remains active and violent, as evidenced by the killing of 37 fishermen on March 8, 2023 just outside the village of Guggo, in Borno state, northeastern Nigeria, but considering everything the organization is clearly having its moment of “ decadence” probably definitive.

The worst hit among those who Boko Haram suffered recently was inflicted in the period between 7 and 11 March when the Nigerien Armed Forces (FAN) detected the movement towards their borders of a massive column of militiamen from Boko Haram accompanied by their families. The column was moving up the Kamadougou Yoge River, most likely heading towards the Lake Chad area, to escape ISWAP pressure.

After repeated attacks by means of Turkish-made Baykar Bayraktar TB2 UCAVs and Mi-35M combat helicopters of Russian origin, the Nigerien ground troops attacked the enemies in force and managed to overwhelm them. In the end about 960 individuals, mostly women and children, were captured and handed over to the Nigerian authorities while an unknown number of terrorists died during the battle.

If the grim epic of Boko Haram in Africa is finally drawing to a close after 14 years of terror and death, at the same time it is necessary for us not to indulge in a sense of complacency because, on the one hand, as already mentioned above, the void left by Boko Haram is being filled by the even more radical ISWAP and, on the other hand, net of Islamic fundamentalism, Nigeria nonetheless presents within it so many "seismic fault lines" at a socio-economic and ethnic-religious level that it undoubtedly deserves the scepter of the largest instability factory on the African continent.