By Rafiu Ajakaye/ Lagos
In the run-up to Nigeria’s general election, Boko Haram militants went on a rampage across the country’s northeast, killing over a thousand people and displacing hundreds of thousands between January and early March.
In a video released late January, Boko Haram kingpin Abubakar Shekau threatened to disrupt the polls even at the “cost” of his own militants’ lives.
The election had to be postponed – from Feb. 14 to March 28 – to give the military, supported by regional armies from Chad, Niger and Cameroon, time to bring the militants to heel.
Between Feb. 14 and the eve of the election on March 27, troops liberated all the towns and territories captured and held since last year by Boko Haram.
The northeastern town of Gwoza – renamed “Daarul Hikma” by the militants and made the capital of their self-styled “Islamic caliphate” – was liberated only days before the hard-fought vote.
As the military dislodged insurgents from the towns they had held, Boko Haram attacks waned across the restive region, but didn’t stop entirely. Since then, no new towns have been captured by the militants.
Militants late Sunday torched homes and burnt the corpses of people they killed in Kwajafa village in the northeastern Borno State.
At least two Boko Haram attacks were recorded in Gombe State on Election Day, when militants also staged two separate attacks in neighboring Bauchi State.
Casualties were reported in both incidents, but the group’s attempt to enter the town of Bauchi was ultimately repelled.
These isolated attacks, however, were a far cry from the damage Boko Haram has wrought in the past.
With a Twitter hashtag, “NeverAgain,” trending for days following the liberation of Gwoza, the Nigerian army says it has decimated Boko Haram’s fighting capabilities, while its scattered members are on the run.
The militants, atypically, have yet to respond to the claims.
Nor have they commented on threats by President-elect Muhammadu Buhari, a retired army general, to deal them fresh blows once he is sworn in.
Is Boko Haram truly dead? Or is it simply in hibernation?
“The militants have largely been overcome by the combined actions of Cameroon, Niger and Chad on the one hand and the reinvigoration of the Nigerian military to save face, maybe because of politics,” Abubakar Mu’azu, a Boko Haram researcher at the University of Maiduguri, told The Anadolu Agency.
“My sense is that many of them [Boko Haram militants] are trying to find a way to escape,” he said.
Patrick Agbambu, president of Security Watch Africa (SWA), a pan-African consultancy that provides security advice and training, said Boko Haram’s militant activity had recently waned significantly.
“Those of us in the security world are confident that Boko Haram will soon be a thing of the past,” he told AA.
“I am one of those who, from the beginning, believed the government was not handling the Boko Haram crisis correctly,” said Agbambu. “The reported clampdown on them, for me, was simply a fluke.”
Nigeria is fighting a six-year Boko Haram insurgency that has claimed tens of thousands of lives and displaced over one million people from the country’s northeast, where the militants have been the most ruthless.
War not over
Mu’azu, the researcher, however, warned against complacency, insisting that a battle may have been won – but not the war.
“It’s too early to say the insurgents have been defeated completely, because we have reports of them moving in groups in parts of Bauchi and Gombe states – though they’re not attacking people as they used to,” he told AA.
“Based on these reports,” he added, “some insurgent elements are still very much alive – but they are not so many as to be able to mount a significant attack.”
“The military has won many battles already, but the war is definitely not over,” he insisted.
Mu’azu contends that the military has not yet fully secured recently liberated areas.
“This explains why internally displaced persons can’t go back to their respective towns – because security there is still not guaranteed,” he told AA.
“The military still must clear some of the areas to ensure security,” the expert said.
Agbambu, the security analyst, said the insurgency remained a grave concern, regardless of the government’s recent declarations of victory.
“In guerilla warfare, sometimes you retreat in order to strategize,” he told AA.
“I think Boko Haram has retreated in order to strategize, knowing that the incoming [Buhari] administration will be hard on it,” said Agbambu.
In his acceptance speech, Buhari reiterated his commitment to fighting the militant group.
“I assure you that Boko Haram will soon know the strength of our collective will and commitment to rid this nation of terror and bring back peace and normalcy to all affected areas,” he said.
In 2013, the notorious militant group named Buhari its preferred negotiator – an offer he flatly rejected.
Known for his fierce criticism of Boko Haram, Buhari, a former military ruler, was targeted in 2014 in what was described by the group as an assassination attempt.
“Right now, they are probably strategizing to work out a way to operate later,” Agbambu said.
“I just hope that between now and when the incoming government takes over, not too much havoc will have been caused,” added the expert.
“I pray the current government will not relent, so that more lives will not he lost,” he said.
Agbambu believes the administration of Buhari, due to be sworn in on May 29, could hold the key to ending the crisis.
He urged the new president to devise a “people-driven” approach to the insurgency.
“Nigerians are not fully involved in the fight against Boko Haram,” Agbambu suggested.
“People see it as a fight between the government and the militants – not Nigerians fighting Boko Haram,” he explained.
“So the new government must make the point that this [the insurgency] is a fight against the Nigerian people and that Boko Haram must be confronted,” said Agbambu.
He added: “We must join hands and fight it as part of our national struggle against terrorism.” (Anadolu Ajansi)