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“The soldiers are less motivated than the Boko Haram insurgents”
“The soldiers are less motivated than the Boko Haram insurgents”
Tunisia’s Political Polarisation Worsens after First Big Terrorist Attack in Two Years
Tunisia’s Political Polarisation Worsens after First Big Terrorist Attack in Two Years
Local hunter known as Vigilante armed with locally made gun and knife on way to support Nigerian army fighting with Boko Haram, 6 December, 2014. AFP/Mohammed Elshamy
Interview / Africa

“The soldiers are less motivated than the Boko Haram insurgents”

Originally published in SonntagsZeitung

In this interview, Nnamdi Obasi, Crisis Group’s Senior Nigeria Analyst, speaks about what exactly it is that the insurgents want, how their activities have evolved, and why the government is ill-prepared to handle the insurgency.


Throughout 2014, we saw a significant increase in the intensity and frequency of Boko Haram attacks. This has been compounded by further violent attacks at the beginning of this year, most notably a massacre in Baga in the northeast of Nigeria.

There have been contradictory reports about the latest attacks on Baga and other communities in the north east of Nigeria. Is it possible to tell how many people have been killed, how many houses have been destroyed?

Nobody has accurate figures. The government claims 150 people were killed in the attack on Baga. But the military has not been able to recapture the area, so it may not know how many people died inside the town. Residents from the area who fled to safety say they walked through countless dead bodies and therefore gave much higher figures. Also, many people may have died while trying to escape across the Lake Chad. Several Human Rights groups claim that 2,000 or even up to 2,500 persons may have been killed, but frankly, there is no certainty.

Has the aggressiveness of Boko Haram increased over the last weeks and months?

Throughout 2014, we saw a very significant increase in the intensity and frequency of Boko Haram attacks. In the past, they attacked in small groups, now they are attacking in large groups up to the size of military regiments. We also saw them making progress from using small arms and light weapons to motorised equipment, reportedly including a tank in one instance. In effect, they are now a real military force. Also, they have become much more brutal: they went from sending suicide bombers to female suicide bombers and now to underage female suicide bombers. And the casualties in 2014 were higher than all the previous years. So we can say that Boko Haram has become more aggressive in every aspect from 2014 until now.

When Boko Haram started, they were maniacs on motorbikes. How could they have become so strong?

Boko Haram has gained resources and strength through various means. These include bank robberies, ransom kidnapping, extortion of individuals and communities, as well as the looting of police and military armories in north east Nigeria. It has also benefited from assistance from outside the country. Nigerian security sources say they have captured weapons from the group, which came from Libya. After the fall of the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, a lot of the guns looted from his armories were trafficked southward to the Sahara and the Sahel, some of them ending up with militant groups like Boko Haram. We also have indications of possibly increasing collaboration between Boko Haram and similar groups like Al-Shabaab in Somalia, or al-Qaeda or Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIL), particularly as Boko Haram’s leader has repeatedly expressed solidarity with these groups. Boko Haram’s increased sophistication in recent times suggests it may be gaining material and training support from these other groups.

What role do the neighbouring countries play?

Boko Haram has also been enabled to grow by the poor security collaboration and cooperation between the Nigerian government and neighbouring countries, especially with Cameroon, but also with Niger and Chad. As long as the borders between these countries remain porous and security cooperation remains weak, the borders will continue to serve as channels through which Boko Haram brings in resources for its operations in Nigeria.

Is there a danger that Boko Haram will establish a caliphate as IS did in Syria and Iraq?

Yes. Boko Haram’s strategic goals have evolved over time. We could well speak of an expansion from being initially a local group to one with far more ambitious goals. Last August, the group’s leader declared that areas under its control were now part of a “caliphate”. Its attacks have since expanded from northern Nigeria to Cameroon and its leader recently threatened more attacks on Cameroon if the country’s leadership does not “repent”. As the conflict spreads to Cameroon, we could see Boko Haram’s caliphate claims also spreading in that direction. And as the Chadian government has now indicated it will lend “active support” to Cameroon, we could also, in the longer term, see Boko Haram seeking to establish some hold on Chadian territory.

In May 2014, President Jonathan said that: “I believe that the kidnapping of these girls will be the beginning of the end of terrorism in Nigeria”. Why is he not acting to bring the attacks to an end since then?

The Nigerian government underrated and misunderstood Boko Haram, and perhaps it still does. For a long time, people around President Jonathan thought that Boko Haram was a political creation of northern leaders to embarrass the Jonathan administration. And they thought it was something that would, as the president himself said, “fizzle out with time”. But this was clearly not the case.

Also, the Nigerian military suffers from many deficits that has made it unable to defeat Boko Haram. Could you explain that?

The army was not trained to fight an insurgency and it has been very slow in adapting to this new challenge. Then of course, it is undermanned and overstretched by its deployment to support the police in internal security duties in almost 30 of the country’s 36 states. Then it is also underequipped for an operational area spanning over 150,000 square kilometers, which is roughly four times the size of Switzerland, and some of it in very rugged terrain. Some soldiers and units refuse to fight because they say they are ill-equipped; and some commanders complain that they lack logistics, including helicopters they need to deploy and reinforce their troops in remote locations and evacuate them speedily, if necessary. Part of this problem of equipment is due to corruption in procurement processes and poor maintenance of assets on ground. The cumulative effect of all these is that morale is low. The soldiers are less motivated to fight than the insurgents.

What needs to be done?

The Nigerian government needs to overhaul its strategy. First, in order to stop Boko Haram’s destruction of communities and massacre of citizens, it needs to conduct its military operations more effectively. And, in order to win the hearts and minds of local people in the region, it needs to conduct its operations more professionally, more clinically and with greater consideration for the rights and lives of civilians. Secondly, the Nigerian government needs to greatly improve its diplomatic and military engagements with neighbouring countries and ensure speedy deployment of the multinational force which was formed by Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger in mid-2014. Thirdly, the government must roll out a more comprehensive counter-insurgency strategy that goes beyond military operations to address the socio-economic factors as well as the religious indoctrination that are fuelling the insurgency. And then of course the international community should lend greater assistance, military, economic and otherwise, toward ending the insurgency.

So the West should intervene with troops on the ground in Nigeria?

No. Many Nigerians do not want to see foreign forces in Nigeria. The country could benefit from foreign trainers, advisers and even technicians to maintain fairly advanced equipment, but most Nigerians still believe that the Nigerian army itself should be able to do the fighting. Boko Haram does not have foreign soldiers sent by any foreign government. So the Nigerian army does not need foot soldiers from any country.

Many people in the West showed solidarity after the attacks in Paris. However, there is little coverage about what happened in Nigeria. Does that make you angry?

There is a profound sense of disappointment and abandonment among people in north east Nigeria, the region most affected by Boko Haram. Most people across the region lament that the tragedy that has befallen them has been underreported, not only by the international media, but even by the Nigerian media, especially the government-owned media. They feel triply abandoned by the Nigerian government, by many of the Nigerian people and by the international community.

There will be elections in February between President Jonathan and the opposition party’s candidate, Muhammadu Buhari. What does that mean for the security situation?

Boko Haram had stated, repeatedly, that it is opposed, not only to Western education and the secular state, but also to democracy and elections. It says democracy and elections are forms of paganism, incompatible with the Islamic State. So it is stepping up attacks to prevent the electoral commission from proceeding with voting arrangements in the north east. The fear of its attacks has prevented the parties from campaigning and may also scare many voters on polling days. The election agency has already declared that elections cannot hold in some parts of the north east, perhaps in up to 70 per cent of Borno state. But Boko Haram aside, tensions between the major parties, and also along regional and religious lines across the country, all suggest a high risk of violence before, during and particularly after the elections.

Why is that?

In regional and religious terms, partly as a side effect of the Boko Haram insurgency, the country is more polarised now than ever before. Jonathan is from the largely-Christian Niger Delta, while Buhari is from the largely-Muslim far north. Many people in the Niger Delta are vehemently insisting that Jonathan must be allowed to continue as president till 2019, citing the fact that the oil revenue which largely sustains the country comes from their region. I was in the Delta in October and the message I got from many people was that if Jonathan is voted out, there will be renewed attacks on oil industry installations in the region. Similarly, the message from the far north, which is also being delivered with equal vehemence, is that if Buhari does not win, there will be violence in the region. The confrontational voices, uncompromising rhetoric and continuing threats of violence from both sides, signal that the country could slide toward an even more dangerous situation, particularly after the elections.

This interview was published with permission from SonntagsZeitung, where a German version of it appeared on 18 January 2015.

A member of the Tunisian security forces stands guard at the site of a suicide attack in the Tunisian capital Tunis on 29 October, 2018. AFP/Fethi Belaid

Tunisia’s Political Polarisation Worsens after First Big Terrorist Attack in Two Years

A 29 October suicide bombing in the heart of Tunis dealt a blow to much-improved security since the last violent jihadist attacks in 2015-16. In this Q&A, our Senior Analyst for Tunisia Michael B. Ayari says it has also hammered a new wedge into Islamist-secularist political divides.

What do we know about what happened, and who was behind the attack?

On 29 October, a suicide bomber set off an improvised explosive device in her backpack on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in downtown Tunis – the city's best-known thoroughfare, a few hundred metres from the ministry of interior and the French embassy. The explosion killed her and wounded twenty bystanders, including fifteen policemen who appear to have been the intended target. For now, no group has claimed responsibility for the bombing. The 30-year-old woman – an unemployed graduate with an English degree from a small village near Mahdia, on the Mediterranean, who occasionally worked as a shepherdess – left no indication as to her motive. Security sources have suggested she may have had contact with members of the Islamic State (ISIS), possibly relatives.

How significant is this attack?

This is the first major terrorist attack to take place in Tunis since 2015, a year when multiple major attacks in the capital and other locations shook the country, targeting parliament, members of the security forces, and foreign tourists. Then, the concern was about ISIS and other jihadist groups that had made clear their intention to destabilise Tunisia's fledging democratic experiment. There were thousands of Tunisians who had joined the ranks of ISIS in Libya and Syria, as well as al-Qaeda affiliated groups operating on the border with Algeria. Tunisia is much more secure today than it was then. Since the last major ISIS attack in Tunisia in March 2016 – when Tunisian members of the group in Libya tried to seize control of Ben Guerdane, a trading town on the Libyan border – security forces have greatly enhanced their capacity to go after jihadist groups, in part with international backing. The security vacuum that existed in the aftermath of the 2011 uprising no longer prevails, ISIS has suffered major defeats in Libya, Syria and Iraq, and while attacks against military and police occur regularly on the mountainous border with Algeria, security has vastly improved in the rest of the country.

The attack comes as Tunisian politics appears increasingly taken hostage by a dispute between President Béji Caïd Essebsi and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed

What impact has the attack had in Tunisia so far?

Beyond the dead and wounded, the most important impact may be political. The attack comes as Tunisian politics appears increasingly taken hostage by a dispute between President Béji Caïd Essebsi and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, and the Islamist/anti-Islamist polarisation that had peaked in 2013 is making a comeback. It was striking to see some Tunisian media immediately seek to place blame for the attack on An-Nahda, the Islamist party that has been a key partner in the governing coalition in place since early 2015. Essebsi's first statement on the bombing was also telling: "There is a rotten political climate," he said. "We are too fixated on positions and rivalries and forget the essential: the security of citizens". That statement was widely seen by his rivals as seeking to score points against his opponents – and indeed a blame game of sorts is taking place.

What is the nature of the dispute between Essebsi and Chahed?

Essebsi has sought for over a year to dismiss Chahed, but has been unable to muster enough support from both his own party, Nida Tounes, and his main coalition partner An-Nahda to do so. An-Nahda, which had initially backed Essebsi, has switched sides and since this summer backs Chahed – or at least does not want him to step down for the moment. The backdrop to this are looming parliamentary and presidential elections in 2019 (in which both men could run), deep divisions in Nida Tounes between Essebsi's and Chahed's partisans, and the future of the consensus between Islamists and non-Islamists that Essebsi and Nahda leader Rached Ghannouchi were key in brokering in 2014. As a result, on 24 September, after months of simmering tensions, Essebsi declared that the consensus with Nahda was over. The return of sharp polarisation swiftly followed, including explosive accusations by the far-left Popular Front party that Nahda has a secret military wing and had a hand in political assassinations carried out by jihadist groups in 2013.

Tunisia cannot really afford to lack an effective government or to botch preparations for what will only be the second democratic elections in its history.

What is the risk from here on?

The political crisis is paralysing Tunisia. The country seems unable to make the tough decisions to tackle a lingering economic crisis. It is late in nominating the members of the electoral commission that will oversee the 2019 elections. It has also not yet nominated the members of the constitutional court, a crucial institution under the 2014 constitution, widely hailed as the most liberal in the Arab world. The rising political polarisation is making it increasingly difficult for parliament to go through with these crucial steps and is discrediting the political class among ordinary Tunisians, particularly as they suffer from rising costs of living. Tunisia cannot really afford to lack an effective government or to botch preparations for what will only be the second democratic elections in its history.

Will this attack worsen the mood?

It very likely will. The end of the consensus announced by Essebsi appears to have removed political safeguards against excessive polarisation. Among ordinary people I spoke to, it was striking to see that many viewed yesterday's attack as expected, almost an outgrowth of the political crisis. Nahda's detractors interpreted it as a warning shot from the Islamist party. Nahda’s supporters viewed it as a false flag operation perpetrated by security forces and the radical secularist camp to justify a new crackdown on Islamists. Finally, members of the security forces and their backers are seizing on the attack as an opportunity to revive a draft "law for the protection of armed forces" that, in its latest draft at least, appears to grant vast powers and impunity to the police and has been roundly condemned by civil society groups. The attack is encouraging the authoritarian drift that has been increasingly in the air for the past year, and indeed may incentivise jihadist groups, which had every reason to be demoralised after the setbacks they suffered in recent years, to carry out further attacks to exploit political divisions.

The casualty toll in this article was updated on 31 October, up from nine wounded as originally reported on 30 October.