The Nigerian army isn’t just notorious for its human rights abuses. It also has a huge morale problem. Hundreds of Nigerian soldiers that Abuja sent to crush the Boko Haram uprising in the country’s northeast have fled their posts in recent months.
On Aug. 25, the BBC reported that 480 soldiers had fled over the border into Cameroon after Boko Haram fighters bested them in battle. The Nigerian army denied that the soldiers deserted their posts—instead claiming they were conducting a “tactical maneuver.”
In some cases, the soldiers outright deserted, refusing to fight the insurgents. Many of the soldiers ultimately returned to Nigeria “looking haggard and wearing tattered clothing.”
Heavy casualties and inadequate equipment also prompted protests by troops’ relatives. In the city of Maiduguri, hundreds of army wives protested the government’s plan to deploy their husbands to fight Boko Haram.
Boko Haram as been quick to exploit the army’s low morale. After forcing government troops out of several towns and holding these areas for weeks at a time, militant leader Abubakar Shekau released a video proclaiming the establishment of a new caliphate in Nigeria’s northeast.
Sahara Reporters has translated parts of the video. Shekau praises his forces for their military victories and refutes the authority of the Nigerian state. “We are in an Islamic caliphate,” he boasts. “We have nothing to do with Nigeria. We don’t believe in this name.”
Shekau’s video includes footage of fleeing Nigerian soldiers and Boko Haram fighters sporting heavy weapons and armored personnel carriers.
Boko Haram could be following the lead of Islamic State, the Iraqi and Syrian militant group that recently declared its own caliphate. In earlier videos, Shekau has congratulated Islamic State on their victories.
Boko Haram doesn’t control a lot of territory like Islamic State does. Nor has the Nigerian group shown any interest in or capacity for actually governing. Still, the announcement is a huge blow to Abuja’s public-relations efforts.
Nigeria’s government and army have dismissed the caliphate proclamation as “empty” and have promised a speedy victory over the insurgents. But authorities have been making claims like these for many years.
Between the army’s well-known structural problems, recent signs of the rank and file’s low morale and internal political tensions due to the upcoming elections, a Nigerian military victory over Boko Haram is unlikely any time soon.
An international military operation could do better. In Mali, a coalition of mostly French and Chadian forces successfully pushed back a strong Islamic insurgency. But a similar operation against Boko Haram would need thousands of well-equipped foreign soldiers, a substantial overhaul of the Nigerian army itself as well as an admission on the part of the Nigerian government that it can’t handle the situation on its own.
None of these things is probable.
The alternative would be for Abuja to negotiate a settlement with Boko Haram. The government blocked previous opportunities for mediation … and insisted on a military solution.
There might be a fresh opportunity for compromise. With the declaration of the caliphate, Boko Haram has publicly committed itself to a political role. The group has also offered to enter negotiations over the 200 girls it abducted from Chibok earlier this year.
But there is no indication that the Nigerian government plans to change its approach to the crisis in the northeast. In all likelihood, the war between Boko Haram and the state will continue in its current form—and intensity—for some time.
At top—a Nigerian soldier at the scene of an explosion in Abuja in June. AP photo/Olamikan Gbemiga