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Why Maiduguri city is key to Boko Haram's future

In 2002, the group we know today as Boko Haram began life in a mosque in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state and the most populous and important city in northeastern Nigeria. Thirteen years later, Boko Haram are coming home – bigger, stronger and more dangerous than ever.

News that the most recent attack on the city was defeated by Nigerian security forces – a rare victory for the beleaguered  seventh division of the Nigerian army – is no cause for celebration. This was just the first wave. For Boko Haram will surely be back to try to capture the city that it intends to make the capital of its Islamic caliphate .

The Maiduguri offensive was accompanied by an attack on Monguno , a garrison town just 140km away from the state capital that hosts an army base and sits astride one of the main roads leading into the city.

This attack was an unquestioned success. Boko Haram captured the whole army base along with its equipment. The fate of the 1,400 soldiers stationed there is still unclear, according to Sahara Reporters .

“We could have overpowered the insurgents, but there was no[t] enough ammunition,” said one army officer who was present, speaking to Nigeria’sPremium Times , in an admission that symbolises everything that is wrong with Nigeria’s military-led counter-terrorism approach.

Tightening the noose

There are five main roads that lead into Maiduguri. Boko Haram now control major towns along four of them, all within a radius of 140km: Monguno to the north; Dikwa to the east; Bama to the south-east; and Damboa to the south-west. Only the western approach, from the Yobe state capital of Damaturu, remains in government hands.

There are five main roads that lead into Maiduguri. Boko Haram now control major towns along four of them

To all intents and purposes, Maiduguri is under siege, and Boko Haram is tightening the noose. It seems only a matter of time before it too falls to the Islamists.

“Boko Haram has spent the last 15 months tightening the belt around Maiduguri by taking over roads, smuggling, trafficking and supply routes, as well as many smaller border towns and villages,” says Dr Yan St-Pierre, CEO and counter-terrorism specialist at the Modern Security Consulting Group.

St-Pierre warns that “based on the success of this long-term strategy so far, it is very difficult to imagine a scenario where Maiduguri does not fall into Boko Haram’s hands, albeit for a short period.”

Boko Haram has morphed from a handful of religious zealots into a fighting force capable of taking on, and beating, one of Africa’s largest armies

From a military perspective, this would be a stunning achievement for Boko Haram, which has morphed from a handful of religious zealots into a fighting force capable of taking on, and beating, one of Africa’s largest armies.

For that army – chronically under-trained and under-equipped – the loss of Maiduguri would be yet another embarrassing defeat to add to the growing list of humiliations dished out by Boko Haram.

Strategic importance

 It would also change Nigeria’s political landscape, perhaps irrevocably.

“Maiduguri is very important, extremely important,” said Martin Ewi, senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies. “We’re talking about two million people who live in that city.”

“The strategic importance of Maiduguri cannot be overestimated,” Ewi warns. “If they can take Maiduguri, taking over the whole state will be a matter of time.”

It’s not easy to imagine what this would mean for the city’s inhabitants, who now include hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people who fled there after escaping Boko Haram’s previous attacks. Amnesty International is alreadywarning  of a disastrous humanitarian crisis.

Not everything is going Boko Haram’s way, however. Ryan Cummings , chief Africa analyst for political risk firm Red24, says Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau may have been spooked by talk of deploying a regional or international force in the area.

“Shekau and Boko Haram may be unsettled and the attack on Monguno today may be part of a strategy by the sect to disable as many military installations and acquire as much arms possible before they get engaged in a multi-front war,” he told the Daily Maverick.

Whatever the motivation, it worked. Monguno fell. Can anyone stop Maiduguri from falling next?


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