Security experts have warned that reclaiming territories earlier seized by Boko Haram does not signal the defeat of the insurgents who have caused the death of about 20,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands.
The warning is contained in a recent report published by the Nigeria Security Network, a group of Nigerian and international experts working on the country’s security.
In the report titled, “End of Boko Haram? – Nigeria’s rapid territorial gains and the role of foreign advisors,” the group warned against the involvement of foreign fighters in the ongoing war.
It, however, noted that the Nigerian military backed by the West African multinational forces are having an upper hand in the battle to defeat the insurgents.
Up until February 2015, Boko Haram had pushed Nigerian troops out of vast swathes of territory in Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa states after a rapid advance beginning around July 2014.
Borno was worst affected, with as much as 60 per cent of the state’s territory outside of government control and Maiduguri, the capital, almost surrounded.
But in an aggressive offensive, government forces in the last three weeks have retaken most of the towns earlier captured by Boko Haram.
Some of the recaptured towns include Baga, Bama, Gamboru Ngala, Goniri, Dikwa, Buni Yadi, Marte, and Madagali. Currently, the only major town that remains under Boko Haram control is Gwoza, which the insurgents designated as capital of their Islamic caliphate.
The report also said the security situation in Nigeria’s North-East is now more conducive to hold safe elections than it was in February when the presidential election was postponed.
Before the recent gains by the Nigerian security forces, the report detailed how troops failed in tackling the insurgents with soldiers blaming their poor performance on insufficient equipment and ammunition.
“There were also numerous reports of heavy weapons and aircraft malfunctioning. Moreover, soldiers complained of not receiving pay for long periods,” the report stated.
It, however, noted that the unusual gains made by the government in recent weeks, coupled with the military’s performance last year, might have come as a result of the involvement of foreign advisors.
“There are alternative explanations for recent gains, including the involvement of a multinational force comprising troops from Nigeria, Chad, and Niger, as well as the involvement of Cameroon around the Nigeria-Cameroon border area.
“Chad in particular, has been credited with re-taking some territory previously held by Boko Haram, including the Nigerian town of Gamboru Ngala.
“Moreover, new equipment acquisitions and the deployment of more effective Nigerian military units, including special forces reportedly trained by the UK, have undoubtedly made an impact. Foreign advisors may also have made a difference in a non-combat role,” the report states.
Despite the gains made so far, the report stated that that Boko Haram has not been defeated, stressing that insurgents cannot be expelled through a series of pitched battles.
The security experts said Boko Haram will go into hiding while intensifying a guerrilla campaign.
The experts could not, however, authenticate the alleged direct involvement of foreign advisors in combat operations as reported by the New York Times and Voice of America.
The U.S. media has been largely critical of the Nigerian government’s handling of the Boko Haram insurgency.
The New York Times and Voice of America reported that mercenaries from South Africa, Georgia, and Ukraine play a leading role in the fight against Boko Haram in Nigeria.
Citing unnamed sources, the two U.S. media also claim that mercenaries have been using armoured vehicles, heavy weapons, and attack helicopters for combat operations at nightfall to avoid detection.
The security experts, however, warned against any attempt to engage foreign fighters in the war against Boko Haram.
“If the advisors become involved in combat, it is likely they will unintentionally harm civilians in the course of the fighting. It is also possible that some may become involved in human rights abuses due to the lack of oversight and accountability for their actions,” the report reads.
“Once this begins to happen, opinion could turn against them, especially amongst those who were once sympathetic to Boko Haram’s messages. The advisors may start to be perceived as a force of occupation.
“This could embolden Boko Haram and even swell its ranks. Due to the insurgency’s brutal attacks on civilian communities, it has struggled in recent months to attract voluntary recruits in Nigeria.
“However, if the group is able to grasp the opportunity, the presence of a foreign force in the north-east may serve as a useful recruiting tool and make it easier for Boko Haram to hide in sympathetic communities. If this happens, the insurgency will be harder to defeat in the long term.”
The report encourages the government and its security forces to engage in a long-term and comprehensive counter-insurgency campaign.