Boko Haram are a group that since 2009 has gained global notoriety through their brutal insurgency campaign in north-east Nigeria. Known for their violent, ruthless approach, Boko Haram made headlines around the world when the group abducted 276 girls from a school in their heartland of Borno state. The girls became known collectively as the Chibok girls after the town from which they were taken. Some managed to escape and others have been freed in various operations over the coming months and years. Well over 100 have not been found, thought to have been sold into slavery in other countries, married to Boko Haram fighters or used as suicide bombers.
Nearly four years on from the abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls in north-east Nigeria a similar incident has once again occurred. This time Boko Haram fighters attacked the town of Dapchi with the target being the local girls’ school. 111 girls have been confirmed as missing and presumed abducted, with a significant security operation underway in an attempt to locate the girls. The events of previous months help to contextualise why Boko Haram decided to launch this attack now and why Dapchi was chosen as the target.
A largely successful military campaign has been led against Boko Haram under the current President, Muhammad Buhari. Boko Haram has lost virtually all the territory it once controlled, reduced until just weeks ago to their one remaining stronghold in Sambisa Forest, south of the Borno state capital, Maiduguri. The Nigerian Army has combed the area in recent weeks, killing significant numbers of fighters and seizing weapons, vehicles and supplies. The operation has sent the notorious leader of the group, Abubakr Shekau, into hiding and his current location is unknown. A joint mission has been set up in Maiduguri between the Nigerian and Cameroonian armies, with Cameroon also suffering from attacks across the border. The operation was seen by President Buhari and the Army to be successful enough to declare in early February that Boko Haram had been defeated. The attack on Dapchi just weeks later sends a message from the insurgent group that they are still fighting and able to cause significant problems.
While it is clear that the attack on Dapchi sends a clear message that Boko Haram are not defeated, the attack serves a very practical purpose for the group. The lack of land under their control has meant that the group has little constant source of income and little access to supplies. This has led to a recent surge in small-scale attacks with a very practical purpose. Towns in Borno and Adamawa states have been targeted along with aid convoys for the supplies that the group now lack. Supplies sought after mainly compromise of food, water and medical provisions.
The chances of the girls being held for ransom is slim. Instead, it is likely they have been abducted so that they are able to be sold into the slave trade. The slave trade in Libya and elsewhere in central Africa is booming and 111 young girls potentially provides Boko Haram with a significant financial windfall. The girls could also provide an effective recruitment tool if the group can tempt young men with the promise of women or a wife. For Boko Haram, the message that they have sent to the Nigerian government and wider West African and international community is clear, yet sending a message was far from the only purpose for launching this attack.
The location of the attack also contributes to this message sent to the Nigerian government. Aside from rare attacks in Abuja, Boko Haram’s activity has largely been limited to the north-east of the country. In particular they have rarely ventured outside of Borno and Adamawa states. Dapchi is in Yobe state, and Boko Haram attacks there have been rare. Dapchi has been deliberately chosen by Boko Haram to emphasise that they have not been defeated as the government has said, and in fact remain capable of conducting attacks outside of their normal area of operations.
In the greater picture of the fight between the Nigerian state and Boko Haram, Dapchi is not significant just for the scale of the attack. It emphasises that while Boko Haram are not the force that they once were, they still have the capacity to launch major attacks both in their heartlands of Borno and Adamawa and further afield in the likes of Yobe. The attack comes as a huge embarrassment to the Nigerian Army and government, with reports that the Army withdrew from Dapchi hours before the attack particularly concerning. Dapchi is a reality check for the Nigerian government with the clearance of Sambisa Forest and the subsequent declaration of Boko Haram’s defeat clearly premature. Having declared that Boko Haram were technically defeated in December 2015 as well, doing this for a second time with an attack like Dapchi closely following is deeply embarrassing for Buhari. With elections around the corner in 2019, Buhari has some serious work to do. He is already deeply unpopular in the Biafran states and faces serious problems in the Niger Delta and Gulf of Guinea. To compound this, since the turn of the year nationwide clashes between Fulani herdsmen, farmers and local militias have left hundreds dead. Dapchi is yet another problem for Buhari and an effective response will need to be close to the top of his priorities if he is to be trusted with another term.