Apparently yesterday Boko Haram pulled off a near repeat of a famous raid of theirs: 300 gunmen kidnapped 160 people. This about a week was after the Nigerian army announced they rescued a similar number of hostages from the Sambisa Forest. (In fact 350 hostages were freed, to give them more credit.) Just checking it out on google, it looks like a pretty big forest, in a mountainous area too. So, it looks to me like it's harder to find people/hostages there than to prevent raids from succeeding in the first place? So, what's the whole Nigerian state strategy against Boko Haram like? Why are they not putting more emphasis on fending off attacks/raids by Boko Haram?

  • Interesting subject, but the Q. seems to invite opinions/speculations.
    – Morisco
    Commented May 29 at 7:50
  • From the way I saw it reported in several media, the kidnapping problem in Nigeria is not one caused by Islamic extremism, but by all sorts of extortionist criminal gangs, Boko Haram being only one of the players. If that was the case, the question would have to be rephrased: if criminals find they can earn money by forming gangs, mass kidnapping children from schools and then asking the parents for ransom, what can a successfull counter strategy be?
    – ccprog
    Commented May 29 at 16:39
  • The interesting question could maybe be where the 300 gunmen come from. There must be a lot of financing for Boko Haram to keep that many people in arms. Commented May 30 at 19:48

2 Answers 2


The military has weak support from the region's civilians and politicians

One of the big challenges faced by the Nigerian central government is that twelve northern states of Nigeria declared Islamic law to be in force in their territory in the years 1999-2000, including the Niger State where the latest abductions took place, and have been run that way for twenty-five years since then.

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From Wikipedia. Niger is one of the "purple" states where Sharia law applies in full.

While the public and the state and local authorities in these regions don't necessarily support Boko Haram's violent tactics (and may, indeed, deplore them in many cases), they are also somewhat ambivalent about it. This is because the regional Islamist political movement in Northern Nigeria, of which Boko Haram is essentially a military wing, played a major role in bringing their state government regimes into power. Boko Haram and its splinter groups, like ISWAP, have the support of many civilians and politicians in these Northern Nigerian states.

As a result, it is easy to Boko Haram to find safe havens in those states, and state and local officials and the general public in those areas are less than enthusiastic about cooperating with the military of the central government that wants to suppress them.

Lack of support from many people in the civilian populations and their leaders, in or near the area of active operations in a counterinsurgency campaign, can greatly undermine its effectiveness. This is alluded to in the materials quoted in the answer from ItalianPhilosophers4Monica, which say that:

ISWAP’s deepening roots in the civilian population underscore that the Nigerian government (and, to a lesser extent, those of Cameroon, Chad and Niger) cannot look purely to military means to ensure its enduring defeat. Instead, they should seek to weaken ISWAP’s ties to locals by proving that they can fill service and governance gaps at least in the areas they control, even as they take care to conduct the counter-insurgency as humanely as possible and in a manner that protects civilians.

Basically, the Nigerian military is effectively an occupying army in northern Nigeria without strong local support. In many respects, Nigeria is a single country in name only.

This underlying political reality is reflected in the longer term trends regarding where kidnappings and attacks are taking place an shown in the chart below (from the CNN story linked in the question):

enter image description here

Niger is in the "North Central" region on this map which has had the second largest number of school attacks.

It is also no coincidence that the biggest school attacks have taken place near the fringe of the Sharia law region of Nigeria, where ethnically Southern Nigerians are most common within the Sharia adopting states.

Boko Haram doesn't have to win each of its individual battles. Instead, to win, it just has to create enough fear to drive out ethnic southerners and their allies from these states. This consolidates Muslim control of these states. It also makes vacated farmland available to Muslims in these states who are feeling pressure to migrate south away from the expanding Sahara desert, because the lands where they used to live after in many cases no longer habitable, even for herders.

Even if a Boko Haram splinter group like ISWAP doesn't manage to hold onto any of the students it has kidnapped in a Nigerian military response to one of its attacks, it can still accomplish its real objective, if it can fade away after these attacks with minimal casualties. This objective is to instill fear in the communities that it raids and convince its residents to flee their homes and farms out of fear for their lives and the lives of their families.

This conflict is part of a larger multinational war

Also, the conflict in Nigeria is really just one part of a larger multinational conflict that spans the entire Sahel region of Africa. This conflict is driven, in part, by the relentless southern expansion of the Sahara desert, pushing the historically Muslim populations of the Sahel region, who were historically herders, south into lands held by Christians and animists who were traditionally farmers.

Boko Haram's counterparts in this Sahel spanning multinational conflict can provide it with resources and tactical tips at strategically important times. As the military wing of a population that is being imminently squeezed by climate change, they are more desperate than the populations aligned with the more southern Nigerians, whom they are targeting, who would be fine with continuing the status quo.

Nigeria's military has limited resources

Of course, like almost every national military force in Africa, the Nigerian military also lacks the funding and the caliber of training found in the military forces of more affluent and developed countries.

This is nothing for Nigeria to be proud of, but it is also not unusual and is pretty much par for the course in the region. Nigeria and its fellow African countries do not have the money to spend on state of the art military equipment and counterinsurgency training that more developed countries do, or to greatly expand the number of soldiers it can deploy.

Nigeria's military budget for the 2023 fiscal year was about $4 billion U.S. dollars equivalent, which is more than double the roughly $1.9 billion U.S. dollar military budget it had five years ago in 2019, and is 12% of Nigeria's national budget. Nigeria spends almost 7% of its GDP on the military, which is about twice the percentage of its GDP that the U.S. spends on its military. This budget supports about 230,000 troops in all branches of the Nigerian armed forces combined (about $17,391 U.S. dollars per soldier per year, including both personnel and non-personnels costs), only some of which can be devoted to fighting Boko Haram related groups in the north.

For example, the Nigerian military also has to deal with one of the worst piracy situations in the world off its coast.

But this still isn't all that much of a military force or military budget for a country that has about two-thirds of the population of the United States (about 218 million people) and a very substantial land area (about 36% larger than Texas with more than seven times as many people as Texas), that is actively fighting a counterinsurgency (i.e. basically, a low intensity civil war).

The U.S. spends that much on single ships, or a couple of advanced warplanes, and has an overall budget per soldier of about $480,000 U.S. dollars per U.S. soldier per year (about 27 times as much per soldier per year in U.S. dollars). And, while the cost of living in Nigeria may allow it to pay its soldiers less per year than the U.S. does, the costs of military weapons and equipment, which Nigeria must mostly import from abroad, is fairly comparable between Nigeria and the U.S. for comparable equipment (e.g. bullets).

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    I was actually [also] wondering why there were more attacks/incidents in the NW (on CNN's map), but the whole discussion was around Lake Chad attacks (in the NE). Your Sharia map puts that nicely in context. Commented May 30 at 3:46
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    And probably more than bullets (last para), they probably lack enough drones to keep track of large insurgent movements. IIRC they don't allow foreign toop/drone bases, unlike e.g. neighboring Cameroon. I'm not sure if the US operates drones over Nigeria from the neighboring countries where they do have bases. N.B. Nigieria does have some strike dones codastory.com/authoritarian-tech/… Commented May 30 at 4:04
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    Nice answer. Mine's a bit of a cookie-cutter of one failure mode of counterinsurgencies, militarily. I remember vaguely seeing something about the Fulani pastorals and a massacre recently, by or on them. But I had been wondering how Boko Haram holds any appeal to civilians. Seeing it laid out as a push to get certain people off the land, motivated by migration pressure brings a lot of light on the political dimension. Commented May 30 at 16:45


Poor morale, leadership, pay and training is frequently the culprit when poor countries struggle with counterinsurgencies. This results in unmotivated and not very professional soldiers. Add to it some tendency to mistreat civilians suspected of assisting militants and you can expect sympathizers to give information to Boko Haram to tell them where/when it is safe to operate or not.

As to prevention vs rescue: most countries, though can't say about Nigeria, would have elite units brought in to look after rescues, who would be... better paid, led, equipped and trained. One such team seems to be the Special Boat Service . Kinda hard to find info on them, due to the UK SBS hogging all the Google results, but here's one case.

Nigeria is #145 on Transparency org, FWIW

From 2019, covering Nigerian military responses to a Boko Haram splinter group, ISWAP (emphasis mine):

For the Nigerian army, the challenge has been multifaceted. On the one hand, it is facing a formidable adversary: ISWAP is more battle-ready, better trained and more rooted in the population than its parent organisation was. On the other hand, the army itself struggles to be effective. Experts describe how its troops are badly led, poorly equipped and insufficiently supplied. Army bases are poorly fortified. Troop rotation is rare, medical evacuation capacity is feeble, coordination with air support (which has occasionally been essential to repelling attacks on ground troops) is weak, and senior leadership has been slow to grapple seriously with its problems.

and another aspect of that lack of professionalism and comprehensive "hearts and minds":

ISWAP’s deepening roots in the civilian population underscore that the Nigerian government (and, to a lesser extent, those of Cameroon, Chad and Niger) cannot look purely to military means to ensure its enduring defeat. Instead, they should seek to weaken ISWAP’s ties to locals by proving that they can fill service and governance gaps at least in the areas they control, even as they take care to conduct the counter-insurgency as humanely as possible and in a manner that protects civilians.

To combat impunity among the security services, they should release the report of the panel that President Muhammadu Buhari appointed in 2017 to investigate alleged military abuses and implement those recommendations that advance accountability. They should enhance public safety in towns that are under government control in Borno and neighbouring states where ISWAP is building influence.

And quoting from my earlier comment, which comes from 2024 article:

“The village’s proximity to the Joint Security Task Force based in Pandogari, just two kilometers away, is especially concerning. Locals allegedly called the security team in a desperate attempt to get help, but they supposedly got no answer.

Giving reasons why the military personnel in Pandogari behaved the way they did, the Youtuber read an anonymous letter written by a Nigerian soldier to the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of Nigeria and dated Jan. 27, 2024.

The narrator explained that the salary of an average Nigerian soldier is N50,000 (50 USD), which is way below what can take care of the basic needs of his family. Furthermore, soldiers are forced to buy uniforms, boots, and other kits.

The letter is verifiable. Sahara Reporters published it on January 28,2024.

According to the letter, soldiers who are on the war front have not received their allowances of N35,000 (40 USD) since last year.

When salaries are delayed, when soldiers are unnecessary subjected hardship and corrupt practices, soldiers tend to react negatively, according to David Adakole Ida, special representative of Africa Region Headquarter, International Human Rights Commission, Nairobi Kenya.


“All these ( delay of salaries ) occurs very regularly in Nigeria and mutinies have occured due to such unfavorable situations,” Idah, told Truthnigeria.

“In 2106, the personnel of the 21st Brigade of the Nigerian Army, stationed Borno State went on rampage over unpaid allowances running into hundreds of thousands of naira, and bad treatment by their commanders. The soldiers almost killed their Senior officers,” Ida said.

” The same thing happened in March 2021, Soldiers of Operation Lafiya surrounded the headquarters of Operation Lafiya Dole and shot into the air for over 6 hours The mutineers cited non-payment of allowances and poor equipment as reasons for their actions, Idah added.

To elaborate on one aspect of the other answer, the military budget isn't great, no. But some/much of it may also go to prestige or friend-buying big-ticket acquisitions that cost a lot and help little with counterinsurgencies, but are popular with militaries worldwide:

Despite a disproportionate emphasis on the materiel and sophistication of the Nigerian Armed Forces, and despite possessing some formidable hardware, the Army has been hamstrung by technical deficiency and an exceptionally poor standard of maintenance.[41] Its overabundance of foreign suppliers, including Austria, Brazil, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland, Romania, Turkey, Ukraine, the former Soviet Union, the United States and the United Kingdom, has also complicated logistics. Calculating the size and scope of replacement inventories alone is impossible given the menagerie of equipment in use

i.e. fast attack jets and tanks * cost a lot, need a lot of maintenance, but aren't the first thing to reach for in a counterinsurgency context (this is the flip side of saying that the US lessened its peer-fighting edge by overfocussing on missions like Afghanistan). More humdrum activities like paying your troops, buying slow loitering aircraft, medevac choppers or better comm gear may be better advised. Weapon purchases are also often used to curry favor with supplier countries.

More background info, governance-oriented: (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2019) Stabilizing Northeast Nigeria After Boko Haram

* the info is a big confusing. The main wiki page claims a lot of overpowered expensive gear. Not supported by wiki's equipment page which actually looks modestly appropriate (though tracked vehicles won't do well beating the bush for long distances). The page from Military Africa does corroborate the assertion of mismatched priorities. Both lists show over-diversity, esp. keeping in mind different origin equipment frequently struggle to be be integrated in combined arms operations.

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