The Nigerian military had a spate of good news recently, with reports emerging that it had contained Ebola and won a rare victory against Boko Haram. We’ll take good news where we can find it, but the situation on the ground in northern Nigeria remains extremely bleak.The threat the Nigerian government faces is a terrifying one; the brutal Islamists have ambitions to build a state, just as their comrades in Iraq and Syria have done. Now it seems they are imitating ISIS’s terror-instilling propaganda; the AP reports today that Boko Haram released a video of a fighter beheading a downed Nigerian pilot. And that’s alarming for another reason—if true, it seems to confirm reports that Boko Haram has the weaponry to shoot down planes.As John Campbell of the Council of Foreign Relations has noted, on his excellent blog “Africa in Transition,” the militants are ferocious and well-equipped, and probably getting most of their armaments from Nigerian military sources (either by theft or from sympathizers). When it announced the recent victory, Campbell writes, the Nigerian military showed off a captured tank it claimed was a Soviet model, and thus likely to have been smuggled in from Libya. Campbell says the vehicle looks to be French-made—and of a type reportedly well-represented in the Nigerian military’s order of battle.So far, the militants haven’t been able to capture Maiduguri, the capital of the northern state of Borno, and the city that Jacob Zenn of the Jamestown Foundation claims could be Boko Haram’s Mosul. He lays out the reasons why this city could make or break the militants’ fortune:
For Boko Haram to sustain its control over territories in Borno in the long term, it will likely need to capture Maiduguri, located in the center of Borno. Such a development would be as symbolic and strategic a victory for Boko Haram as ISIS capturing Mosul in northern Iraq from the Iraqi government in June 2014. Moreover, it would show Nigerians that Boko Haram is not only a fringe movement on Nigeria’s northeastern periphery, but that it can control a state of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.Boko Haram’s several thousand armed militants may not have the strength in numbers to take Maiduguri. However, the militants’ probable strategy would be to attack the city in waves using forcibly recruited foot soldiers and weapons stored in towns outside Maiduguri and coordinate with cells in parts of this province that have long been sympathetic to Boko Haram. If Boko Haram could give the impression that it was invading and winning, including by distributing pamphlets and videos of beheadings of soldiers for psychological effect, it is possible that some soldiers and thousands of civilians would flee. This would leave the city – or at least parts of it – for Boko Haram’s taking.
As things stand, the army’s recent victory could undermine Boko Haram’s position:
[O]n September 22, Nigerian and Cameroonian sources reported the death in Konduga, just south of Maiduguri, of Bashir Muhammad, who was using the pseudonym of Abubakr Shekau to issue statements on behalf of Boko Haram. The military’s victory over Boko Haram in Konduga and the death of Bashir Muhammad could signal a morale boost for Nigeria and deflate Boko Haram’s propaganda and lead to factionalization of its ranks (Sahara Reporters, September 22).
The bottom line:
[T]he battle for Maiduguri will likely become a turning point for the Nigerian Islamist group: Either the Nigerian government will defend the city and roll back Boko Haram in Borno, or Boko Haram will infiltrate the city and further cement its budding Islamic state.
Nigeria succeeded against Ebola (at least for now) because the outbreak occurred in the country’s prosperous south, which has the resources to act decisively, both in taking medical precautions and forestalling mass panic. Boko Haram is conquering the country’s north, which is poorer, less well-supplied, and rightly terrified. Containing the latter has proven far more difficult, and victory far from assured.