Countries hit by Boko Haram violence were warned on Wednesday not to make premature claims of victory, despite the Islamist group being pegged back by a sustained military counter-insurgency.
“Though the military response to Boko Haram has become more cogent, the Lake Chad states should not too quickly proclaim ‘mission accomplished’,” the International Crisis Group said.
“Even if they are made to abandon all territorial pretensions in Nigeria’s northeast and the Lake Chad area, or are forced to abandon their guerrilla war, some Boko Haram militants at least are likely to seek to continue their insurgency in some form, probably through terror attacks,” the security analysts added.
Nigeria and its neighbours Cameroon, Chad and Niger are due to hold a security summit in Abuja on May 14 with international partners including Britain, France and the United States.
The ICG said the meeting — two years after the first in Paris — was “an opportunity to consolidate regional and wider international cooperation” as well as review current policies.
Closer ties beyond military support were vital to address key drivers of the conflict, as well as its effects, to prevent sustained support for the Islamists and similar, future threats.
These include addressing the humanitarian situation for the more than 2.8 million people made homeless by the violence since 2009, and re-establishing the rule of law and governance in the region.
Also key was treatment of detained Boko Haram suspects and even more moderate fighters willing to be rehabilitated, the ICG wrote in a briefing paper, “Boko Haram on the back foot?”
“How governments treat and distinguish Boko Haram ideologues from those who joined from other motives will be vital,” the report said.
“Dealing appropriately with ex-members is the first step to lessen recruitment.”
Nigeria’s military on Tuesday said dozens of Boko Haram fighters were now at a rehabilitation camp in an undisclosed location and undergoing a “deradicalisation” programme.
– ‘Difficult to eradicate’ –
President Muhammadu Buhari, who has made defeating Boko Haram a priority since taking power last year, in December declared that the Islamic State group affiliate was “technically” defeated.
Armed service chiefs have in recent days also been talking up operations in Boko Haram’s Sambisa Forest stronghold, indicating a final push was under way.
But the rebels have still been able to deploy suicide bombers in northeast Nigeria, and particularly northern Cameroon, even if attacks have decreased in Chad and Niger.
The ICG recommended winding down the use of civilian militia forces who have helped the military maintain security but also been accused of abuses against civilians.
A failure to do so could increase the risk of local, communal violence, it warned, adding: “Many could become tools for local politicians to misuse.”
Boko Haram, whose push for a hardline Islamic state in northeast Nigeria has left more than 20,000 people dead since 2009, has come to resemble a marauding criminal gang in recent months.
The ICG, however, cautioned that its reduced capacity to operate beyond hit-and-run raids for resources should not be under-estimated.
“Much like other jihadist groups, such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), it may become less a guerrilla force attached to a specific territory and more a terror group with a longer reach,” the report added.
“Even if it may be on its back foot, Boko Haram is likely to be difficult to eradicate, because it originates from Nigeria’s deep structural challenges.”
These include deep-seated corruption and poor governance, as well as perceived regional inequalities, abject poverty and lack of opportunity that Boko Haram was able to exploit for support.
A failure to tackle these, combined with uncertainty and weakness in neighbouring countries, could prolong Boko Haram’s existence in a different form or even create a new security threat, the ICG added.