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November 30, 2020


NIGERIA: Massacre attributed to Boko Haram does not alter strategic outlook

BY Malte Liewerscheidt

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On 28 November, at least 110 civilians have reportedly been killed by armed men in a village close to Maiduguri, the capital of north-eastern Borno state. The style of the attack, which was apparently carried out by a group of armed men on motorcycles, fits the established pattern of Islamist insurgent group Boko Haram. As such, while the high death toll stands out, the incident is unlikely to signal a turning point or major strategic shift in the Boko Haram insurgency, which remains confined to the north-east.

While the evidence remains patchy, the civilians killed appear to have been mostly farmworkers originating from Sokoto state 600km to the west of Maiduguri. They may have farmed on land controlled by Boko Haram without seeking the group’s permission and pay their dues. Accordingly, the massacre may have been a gruesome reprisal action to remind the local population who is in charge. The ruthlessness of the attack and its location in central Borno state suggest it may have been carried out by one of the two main Boko Haram factions.

Over the years, the faction led by Abubakar Shekau has degenerated into something best described as a ‘blood cult’ with little ideological purpose, indiscriminately killing civilians of all faiths and plundering local resources. Partly in response to this development, the Islamic State in West Africa (ISWAP) faction broke away from Boko Haram proper in 2016. ISWAP, a more disciplined group that operates mainly around the northern fringes of Borno state, has retained Boko Haram’s Islamist and anti-government core ideology but used to be more lenient with the local population. However, following a bloody leadership tussle removing the more moderate ISWAP leadership, the number of violent attacks against local civilians ascribed to this faction has risen as well.

Meanwhile, in 2019, the Nigerian military gave up on trying to defend the hinterland of Borno State against Boko Haram and instead retreated to a number of heavily fortified ‘super camps.’ However, while the armed forces are evidently unable to defeat Boko Haram, over the past decade, the group has persistently struggled to expand its area of operations beyond the north-east. Accordingly, while the latest incident provides further evidence of the armed forces’ failure to protect the local population in Borno state, the conflict’s overall pattern with its epicenter in the north-east is unlikely to change.

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