Nigeria’s military has struggled to counter ISWAP and is now looking to enhanced regional cooperation to advance its efforts.
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.
ISWAP’s successful attacks over the course of 2018 hit the army increasingly hard, contributing to low morale. Soldiers have staged a few protests, and there are many reports of desertions. The Nigerian army typically downplays its losses, repeatedly claiming (as they did about Boko Haram before its 2016 split) that ISWAP’s attacks are “the last kicks of a dying horse”. But the army’s repeated threats to punish fleeing troops and frequent rotation of commanders indicate significant internal difficulties.
For Nigeria to counter ISWAP militarily, it will likely need to invest more heavily in cooperative efforts under the auspices of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) – a regional command that is supposed to coordinate the troops of the four Lake Chad basin countries operating in the area (ie, Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad). The MNJTF has taken time to rise to the challenge that ISWAP presents.
Its Operation Amni Fakhat (April-July 2018) aimed to reoccupy key positions and begin some service delivery to populations in the lake area but achieved little; ISWAP launched a massive offensive right after the operation stopped.
A new MNJTF operation, Yancin Takfi, began in March 2019. This time, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari canvassed neighbouring states for support in person, and troops from Chad, which had played a key part in the 2015 pushback against Boko Haram, entered deep into Borno state to participate.
After an unconvincing start (including a three-month delay), there are indications that the Chadian and Nigerian troops, backed by massive air support, are making some headway, reaching a number of important sites in ISWAP core territory. It remains to be seen whether they can hold their positions on the lake as the rainy season approaches (it begins in July), creating operational challenges for the MNJTF, which is a heavier, less agile force than ISWAP.