Nigeria repeatedly claims to have severely weakened Boko Haram and is eyeing an end to the conflict by year-end, yet the Islamists still show a capacity to launch deadly attacks.
Most of the nearly 1,500 people killed in Nigeria since President Muhammadu Buhari came to power in May have died in suicide and bomb attacks on northeastern towns and cities.
Simultaneously, remote areas of Cameroon, Chad and Niger have been targeted, underlining the Islamic State affiliate’s threat to regional security.
Eighteen people were killed and 100 homes torched in a dead-of-night attack in southeastern Niger on Thursday.
But Maiduguri, where Boko Haram was formed in 2002, has borne the brunt of the carnage despite heavy security and the presence since May of Nigeria’s military high command.
Last Sunday, eight people were killed when a female suicide bomber detonated her explosives among women and children arriving in the city.
And the Borno state capital was hit six times in October, killing at least 54, while on September 20, at least 117 were killed, prompting calls for better intelligence and security on the ground.
– Kinship and corruption –
Boko Haram’s fight for a hardline Islamic state in northeast Nigeria has left at least 17,000 dead and made some 2.6 million homeless since 2009.
For Dauda Mande, a local chief from the northeast, kinship bonds in the Kanuri ethnic group which forms the bulk of Boko Haram’s membership has played its part in prolonging the conflict.
Most towns and villages along the borders of Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and to some extent Chad are populated by Kanuris, providing at least a cultural and linguistic link with the rebels.
“It provides Boko Haram with some protection because of the ethnic sentiment that plays out with the Kanuri population not willing to expose their kindred who move across the borders with ease,” he told AFP.
Suicide bombers have sneaked into Maiduguri from nearby villages where they are provided sanctuary, according to Babakura Kolo, a member of the civilian vigilantes assisting the military.
“The attackers usually enter the city on foot, evading military checkpoints with the assistance of their accomplices who live not far from the city,” he added.
Claims that Boko Haram is effectively “sponsored” by some powerful individuals in the northeast have been made periodically throughout the conflict.
The Nigerian army in September accused “some prominent individuals and political groups” from Borno and the northeast of working to sabotage the counter-insurgency for “personal interests”.
No names were mentioned or details given about how the alleged sabotage was carried out and for what purpose but as attacks continue, such talk looks unlikely to stop.
Corruption has long been suspected as having hampered the fight against Boko Haram, particularly in 2014, when the group seized swathes of territory and the military appeared powerless to act.
Last week, Buhari said troops were denied weapons to fight and thousands of lives were lost because of rampant fraud in the procurement process.
As well as allegedly “fictitious and phantom contracts” for fighter jets, helicopters, arms and ammunition that never materialised, there have also been claims of complicity.
Abudullahi Wase, a security analyst who tracks the conflict, said it was “obvious” some elements in the military had been or were still in cahoots with Boko Haram for financial gain.
– Weapons and manpower –
Nigeria has in recent months claimed to have destroyed Boko Haram camps in the northeast, seizing ammunition and weapons, as well as uncovering so-called “bomb factories”.
Access to weaponry, however, is clearly still an issue, making it a priority for better surveillance with the militants still able to get arms as well as replenish fallen front-line fighters.
Nigeria’s porous borders have long contributed to the supply of arms via lawless Libya and the established smuggling routes through the sparsely populated Sahel region.
The group has previously seized weapons, including assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and even tanks and armoured personnel carriers from the Nigerian military during raids.
On personnel, Boko Haram has previously used forced conscription of men and boys but has also forged alliances with Buduma and Kalumba ethnic groups in Chad, said Khalifa Dika.
“Boko Haram has an army of willing mercenaries from Chad who cross the porous border to join its ranks for the booty they get from raids on villages,” said the former Maiduguri university lecturer.
“So, Boko Haram can easily replenish its ranks when depleted by the military attacks.”