FACT-CHECK: Buhari’s claim that Boko Haram ‘not holding any territory’ in Nigeria exaggerated

Buhari Talking

Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari claimed recently that militant Islamist group Boko Haram have been driven into “fall-back positions” and are “currently not holding any territory” in the country.

Mr. Buhari was speaking during a meeting last month with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. His comments came just weeks after he claimed that Nigeria had “technically won the war” against Boko Haram, which in July 2014 had moved on from staging ad-hoc guerrilla-style attacks on security forces to seeking, and gaining, control of large swathes of Nigerian territory.

For Mr. Buhari, a victory over Boko Haram is key to meeting promises that formed a cornerstone of the election campaign that swept him to power last year.

Boko Haram ‘technically defeated’

The militant group’s deadly six-year insurgency in Nigeria’s northeast is estimated to have cost the lives of between 13,000 and 17,000 people, led to hundreds of homes, businesses and schools being destroyed and forced more than 1.5 million people to flee for their lives.

Soon after winning the election in April, Mr. Buhari set an ambitious December deadline to achieve victory over Boko Haram. Two days before Christmas, his information minister, Lai Mohammed, told reporters that he could “confidently” say that “the war against Boko Haram is largely won“.

In an interview with the BBC, Mr. Buhari said Boko Haram were “technically defeated“. Forty-eight hours later a wave of attacks by female suicide bombers claimed the lives of more than 50 people in northeastern Nigeria.

So is Mr. Buhari’s claim that the militants no longer hold any territory in Nigeria correct? What does it mean for the battle against the group?

From guerrilla attacks to seeking a ‘caliphate’

Launched in 2009 with a wave of guerrilla-style attacks on the security forces, Boko Haram’s efforts to establish an Islamic state or caliphate in north-eastern Nigeria gained momentum in July 2014 with a rapid advance through vast swathes of territory in Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa states. By January 2015, the group had pushed out government forces and controlled four towns in Borno and Yobe states – Gwoza, Bama, Baga, and Gulani – an area spanning about 51,800 km².

According to a report published by the Nigeria Security Network in March 2015, Borno State was the worst affected with as much as 70 per cent of its territory annexed by Boko Haram.

Renewed offensives by the Nigerian military, aided by South African mercenaries, saw “[m]ost of the towns captured during Boko Haram’s recent offensive… re-taken [by March 2015], including Baga, Bama, Gamboru Ngala, Goniri, Dikwa, Buni Yadi , Marte, and Madagali”.

The only major hold-out was Gwoza, a town in a mountainous region near the Cameroonian border in north-eastern Nigeria that Boko Haram militants had claimed as the headquarters of the caliphate.

In late March, a day before the country’s presidential elections, the Nigerian military said it had recaptured the town. But those claims were called into question last month. Philemon Emmanuel, described as the chairman of an internally displaced persons’ camp, told journalists on January 6 that “Gwoza and other towns within the area were still under the control of Boko Haram”.

Villages in Borno state still occupied

A community leader in Bama, Ibrahim Bukar, told Africa Check that claims that all areas of Borno state had been liberated from Boko Haram “are an exaggeration.”

“We are not yet back to our local government,” Mr. Bukar, who now resides in Maiduguri – the state capital – said. “Apart from the Damaturu-Maiduguri road, there is no other road a civilian can travel without any problem. The army will not even allow us to go to Bama, on our own, they’ll tell us to wait for their truck.”

A former resident of the market town of Gamboru-Ngala in Borno, Muhammad Awwal, said Boko Haram still hold some villages in the state. “My source in Gwoza told me Boko Haram is gathering around Ngoshe and Ashigashiya, all in Gwoza [district],” Mr. Awwal said.

“In Kala-Balge, there are some parts which are still not liberated. In my local government too, there are places like Zanari up to Bulgaram still occupied by Boko Haram.” Mr. Awwal also claimed that villages in the Monguno district such as Zuma Kuwon and Lahadin Bida were still under Boko Haram control.

The caretaker chairman of Gwoza local government, Ibrahim Abba, told Africa Check that Boko Haram fighters were still present about 6 km from Gwoza township.

“Our major problem now is access road to Gwoza township (from Maiduguri) and Pulka (from Adamawa State). Our people going to market Limankara  (about 13 km from Gwoza) use army escorts. The army have not given us permission to move on our own.”

Mr. Abba – who fled Boko Haram’s advance and now lives in Maiduguri – also told Africa Check that out of the 13 wards that make up Gwoza, there is no military presence in six.

“We are still appealing to the Nigerian army to move there. Boko Haram boys are there disturbing our people. It is only the Cameroonian army that reach there, and and when they get there, they do not differentiate between our people and Boko Haram – they clear everybody.”

In addition, the Nigerian military has yet to dislodge Boko Haram fighters from a stronghold in the 60,000 km² Sambisa Forest in Borno.

‘Operational bases but not governing any areas’

A security analyst and member of the Nigeria Security Network, Ryan Cummings, said Mr. Buhari’s claim that Boko Haram was not holding any territory was “difficult to assess because there is just no independent reporting from rural, northeastern Nigeria, specifically Borno state where a lot of the violence takes place”.

“In recent days, the Nigerian military has claimed to have dislodged Boko Haram from within local government areas which dilutes the credence of claims that all areas have been recaptured.

“It revolves around how you define whether a territory is being held. There is a fair claim to be made that Boko Haram isn’t governing any areas but they do have operational bases within rural north-eastern Nigeria,” Mr.  Cummings said.

Conclusion: Buhari’s claim that Boko Haram “are not holding any territory” is exaggerated

While Boko Haram appear to have been driven from most major population centres, there is evidence that they still hold territory and have operational bases in some remote rural areas such as the Sambisa Forest. There are also claims by displaced residents that the militants remain active in remote areas like Gwoza and Monguno.

Mr. Buhari’s assertion that Boko Haram have “technically” been defeated has also been criticised by some analysts as the “defeat that never was“.

The Nigerian government has effectively sought to equate loss of territory by Boko Haram with defeat. “The capture of territory by Boko Haram lasted only about six months in the six-year long insurgency,” Mr. Cummings said. “It appears that they are not looking to capture any more territory at the moment because it is such a resource heavy exercise to do so.”

“It is always a bad idea for the leaders of countries to declare highly active terrorist groups dead,” Max Abrahms, assistant professor of political science at Northeastern University in Boston, told AFP. “History shows that terrorist groups are extraordinarily difficult to snuff out once they have reached a critical mass. The truth is that terrorism is very easy to perpetrate.”

Historically, Boko Haram’s strategy has not centred on territorial control or conventional military operations but hit-and-run guerilla-warfare tactics and suicide bombings that terrorise and demoralise.

While it appears that Boko Haram are no longer governing key areas and cannot launch conventional military attacks, their insurgency remains deadly. The recent spate of suicide bombings that have left dozens dead and injured is evidence of this.

While Buhari would probably have been correct if he had claimed that Boko Haram are no longer governing any territory or holding major towns, his claim that they are “not holding any territory” at all is exaggerated. The conflict appears far from over.

Edited by Julian Rademeyer
This fact-check was done by our partner, Africa Check, a non-partisan organisation which promotes accuracy in public debate and the media. We have its permission to republish. Follow the organisation on Twitter at @AfricaCheck or visit its website atwww.africacheck.org

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  • Darlington

    Buhari is fighting Bokoharam more with propaganda than military intelligence and weaponry. This is the reason Bokoharam is still killing people and destroying properties TECHNICALLY.

    • Dodon Doya

      I don’t think so. PMB is fighting BH more seriously than the previous regime. Since the coming of this Administration the military has been fighting the BH with renewed zeal & determination having been properly armed & equipped and the result: the war is largely being won. BH has certainly been driven out of occupied territories and are retreating. Slowly but surely we are seeing the end of BH. Let us be positive & give our support to the Govt in this regard.

      • ayobamiba

        You are correct my bros only that you also intentionally forgot to also add that one of the formidable stumbling blocks to the war against terrorism during Jonathan’s government was APC leaders and their party who sowed ethnic, religious and tribal discord amongst the fighting machinery of government. APC planted sabotage into the fighting forces of our nation against terrorism.

  • agbobu

    PRESIDENT BUHARI PLEASE YOU MUST DO ALL IN YOUR POWERS, TO OBLITERATE BOKO HARAM FROM THE SURFACE OF THIS EARTH WITH MILITARY INCISION. WE THE PEOPLE THE MASSES KNOW, THAT THE PROBLEMS YOU INHERITED FROM THE GOD FORSAKEN ADMINISTRATION OF GOODLUCK JONATHAN ARE ENORMOUS. WE THE PEOPLE THE MASSES ARE VERY SOLIDLY BEHIND YOU, BECAUSE WE NOT ONLY HAVE IMPLICIT TRUST AND CONFIDENCE IN YOU, BUT WE ALL KNOW THAT THE ALMIGHTY GOD WILL ALWAYS GUIDE ANS PROTECT YOU PRESIDENT BUHARI

  • Analyst

    He won the election va exaggeration he has to govern Nigeria by exaggeration. In islam it is allowed to lie as long as you can win unbeliever. Buhari is winning unbelieving Nigeria via lies.

    • Al

      I disagree

      • ayobamiba

        He is very correct my bros

    • Al

      i disagree with you bcuz recently when apc took over power there is military checks point all over, but now NO single road block anywhere. That means there is improvement

    • Jika

      Where in the holy book of Muslims is it stated that ‘it is allowed to lie as long as you can win an unbeliever’? I think you can make your point(s), put forward your argument without exhibiting your bigoted nature.Was Buhari voted under the banner of Islam?Are you saying no Christian voted for Buhari?Are there no Christians serving under the current Government? It is your right to critize the Government,it’s leaders and,it’s policies.However,it speaks volumes to your level of intellect and exposure when you give religious coloration to issues that are purely secular and National in outlook.

      • Ade

        taqiyya and kitman. quran 16: 106

        • Eluba Inas

          You need to go back and read it to clear your your mind of misconception.
          Q16:106. Whoever disbelieves in Allah after his belief… except for one who is forced [to renounce his religion] while his heart is secure in faith. But those who [willingly] open their breasts to disbelief, upon them is wrath from Allah , and for them is a great punishment;

          • Otile

            What version of the Holy Qur-an are you quoting to us? Again Taqiyya.

      • Analyst

        al-Taqiyya – go check it up. U know little to argue

        • Jika

          I think you need to read and understand.Better still you should supply the quote as done by @eluba Inas in response to @Ade’s below.Apparently,you are the one who knows nothing but only writing out of deep seated hatred and bigotry.

          • Otile

            You a not a good Muslim man as far as the eye can see. Get yourself a true copy of the Holy Qur-an, read it well before you can proselytize. Ka ji ko?

          • Jika

            I refused to be dragged into the dirt with you.Your phobia for Islam and disdain for Muslims has never been hidden in your various comments.Suffice to say though anytime I read comments from you and your type,it STRENGTHENS my believe in ISLAM and makes me to ETERNALLY proud of being a MUSLIM and a NIGERIAN.I wonder wether you are proud and happy with all the hatred and bigotry that is eating you away!!!!!

        • Otile

          Tell him bro. He is now pretending that he does not know again how they (Muslims) use al-Taqiyya to deceive people.

  • ayobamiba

    Fighting terrorism is not an ‘owambe’ dance ,terrorism is the worst form of warfare that needs d cooperation of every patriotic citizens. We can never deny the facts that PMB had made spirited efforts at rijiging the fighting forces of Nigeria against terrorism and had also made progress in the war.what had made Nigerians to be drawn into parochial, unpatriotic, religious, tribal,political narratives had been the hypocrisy ,deceit, falsehood peddling of APC media machinery who sensationalized Nigeria’s war against teror and divided Nigerians with some sections supporting boko haram and regarding the war against the insurgents in the past as a war against their region and people .APC leaders are guilty of dividing Nigerians on the basis of religion, ethnicity and political affiliations instead of supporting the previous government of Jonathan in his sincere efforts to deal with that challenge. To me what had sustained the terrorists till date have been wicked and malicious tendencies of APC leaders.even now what had been a continual stumbling blocks to sincere war against terrorism is still the heartless penchant of APC to continue with their lies,hypocrisy, hate speech,malicious tendencies ,falsehood peddling, blackmail and living in denial. This government shall attract the support, loyalty, patriotism, friendship and sincere prayers of Nigerians if buhari should endeavor to sincerely acknowledge the positive strides and contributions of his predecessor and start building sincerely on where he stopped. APC is running away from their own shadows and worst still they are running swiftly while their faces are permanently fixated at their backs. This hypocrisy ,deceit,pretences is bound to crash heavily. No nation shall make progress been governed with hypocrisy, self deceit,lies,malice,hate,blackmail and falsehood peddling as APC is leading Nigeria today.while APC leaders are busy lying to Nigerians in their bids to cover up against the monumental lies they previously told Nigerians,more and more citizens are paying heavy prices with their lives and destinies.surely this evil must stop for Nigeria to live and make progress.may God give those who lost their loved ones fortitude to bear the loses.

  • Patriotique

    While #iStandWithBuhari , i urge him to keep to his promise of leading Nigeria with HONESTY. The patriotic citizens understand that the rot in the system is deep, great damage was done and we also do understand that it might take a long time to get rid of the Goliath, BH. So, we didnt need to hear the untrue conclusion that BH was tech defeated. He ought to know that we understand to some extent that it wont be easy. He shouldnt allow himself to be used by the party or his advisers. He ought to do what is right, no matter what. Protect Nigerians before the Constitution. Do what is right. So much hope on #PMB. God be with him. God bless Nigeria.

  • quintox2016

    “Those responsible for the crimes detailed in Amnesty International’s report

    must be held to account, no matter their rank or position. Only then can there

    be justice for the dead and their relatives. The President [Muhamadu Buhari]

    announced on 12 June 2015 that investigating criminal responsibility for the

    violations documented in Amnesty International’s report would be the first task of the

    Attorney General. This investigation is yet to begin.”

    ……AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL

    (February 1st, 2016)

    • sexomania

      @agbontan2003:disqus

      I beg, someone who is his friend, like a fellow Alimajiri, should tell President Buhari that he has lost
      the trust and respect of people abroad. He was quick to tell too many untruths immediately he took
      office lat June. He did not keep a single promise. That is deceit, that is dishonesty, that is sheer fraud.

      It is as bad as saying one did Wasc/Cambridge examination in 1961 which WAEC has since falsified.
      Those who don’t have dictionary at home can call Buhari ‘man of integrity’. I can not say such thing.
      I have a big dictionary. I have read what integrity means. I will not use that word for Muhamadu Buhari.

    • sexomania

      @agbontan2003:disqus

      I beg, someone who is his friend, like a fellow Alimajiri, should tell President Buhari that he has lost
      the trust and respect of people abroad. He was quick to tell too many untruths immediately he took
      office lat June. He did not keep a single promise. That is deceit, that is dishonesty, that is sheer fraud.

      • esskay

        You wrote:

        •”……It is as bad as saying one did Wasc/Cambridge examination in 1961 which WAEC has since falsified. Those who don’t have dictionary at home can call Buhari ‘man of integrity’. I can not say such thing. I have a big dictionary. I have read what integrity means. I will not use that word for Muhamadu Buhari.”

        But is that what AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL is complaining about? Why don’t you keep to the issue?

        The issue here is that BUHARI tells too many lies and we want to stop that sort of nonsense. We are

        not talking about Wasc/Cambridge of 1961. We are talking about lies of head of state. I can agree that

        lies are lies but some lies are heavier than others. Let’s solve Buhari’s dishonesty on the job first.

  • Musa M. Dantsoho

    Someone should let our jaundiced social media commentriats know the relevant of investigative journalism. At least for an objective and unbiased mind to judge the story impartially, there need to be conformation from unbiased sources.

  • TAWANDA INCOMMUNICADO

    Lai Mohammed the local “Goebells” of the present dictatorship is “technically missing in action” considering these recent concerns about the insurgency !!

    • clairvoyance

      Hey nama how you dey, u fit tell us how ur hero don unfortunato handle Boko Haram? Nor be the money when dem suppose use by munitions for soldiers he use run election and share give him friends. You for don collect slap since via email.

  • ilesanmi

    Buhari should stop playing politics with the lives of Nigerians. he should lay bare, the facts about the insurgency.
    Many IDPs deceived by Buhari and Lai about the safety of their abandoned towns and villages and returned home ended up being killed on return,by the insurgents.