Three years after Boko Haram broke apart, one faction, the Islamic State in West Africa Province, is forming a proto-state in northern Nigeria. The state should press its military offensive against the jihadists but also try undercutting their appeal by improving governance and public services.
What’s new? The Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), a splinter of Boko Haram, is growing in power and influence in north-eastern Nigeria. It has notched military successes and made inroads among Muslim civilians by treating them better than its parent organisation and by filling gaps in governance and service delivery.
Why does it matter? The resurgence of a potent jihadist force around Lake Chad means continuing conflict for Nigeria and neighbouring states, as well as ongoing peril for civilians caught in the crossfire.
What should be done? State authorities should supplement their military campaign with efforts to weaken ISWAP’s influence by improving governance and services in the north east. While the time may not seem right for comprehensive negotiations, the parties should keep channels of communication open in order to advance short-term goals like increasing humanitarian access.
The Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), a splinter of Boko Haram, is growing in power and influence. From its territorial base on the banks and islands of Lake Chad, this jihadist group is waging a guerrilla war across north-eastern Nigeria and elsewhere on the lake’s periphery. By filling gaps in governance and service delivery, it has cultivated a level of support among local civilians that Boko Haram never enjoyed and has turned neglected communities in the area and islands in Lake Chad into a source of economic support. If Nigeria and its neighbouring Lake Chad states want to sever the bond between ISWAP and these communities – and they should – then they cannot stop with countering ISWAP in battle. They will need to complement military action by filling the service and governance gaps that ISWAP has exploited.
Displacing ISWAP will not be easy. Although the group’s methods are often violent and coercive, it has established a largely symbiotic relationship with the Lake Chad area’s inhabitants. The group treats local Muslim civilians better than its parent organisation did, better than its rival faction, Jama’tu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (JAS), does now, and in some ways better than the Nigerian state and army have done since the insurgency began in 2009. It digs wells, polices cattle rustling, provides a modicum of health care and sometimes disciplines its own personnel whom it judges to have unacceptably abused civilians. In the communities it controls, its taxation is generally accepted by civilians, who credit it for creating an environment where they can do business and compare its governance favourably to that of the Nigerian state.
ISWAP’s approach appears to have paid dividends in terms of recruitment and support. With an estimated 3,500-5,000 members according to Crisis Group’s sources, it overshadows JAS, which has roughly 1,500-2,000, and appears to have gained the military upper hand over the latter. It has also caused real pain to the Nigerian military, its primary target, overrunning dozens of army bases and killing hundreds of soldiers since August 2018. As its name suggests, ISWAP is affiliated with the faded Islamic State, or ISIS, caliphate in Iraq and Syria, whose remnants count ISWAP victories as their own. ISWAP appears to be working hard to gain greater favour from its namesake organisation, and it has obtained some support already, notably in the form of training, though it is not clear how significant a boost this will afford.
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.
They should take care that in seeking to cut off ISWAP’s access to local markets they do not alienate locals by also strangling their ability to trade. And even though negotiations to end hostilities may not be a realistic prospect at this time, they should keep lines of communication open with ISWAP, focusing on practical issues such as how to get more humanitarian assistance to local communities.
These strategies certainly do not guarantee victory for state authorities over ISWAP – but they could help counteract important sources of the organisation’s strength, provide a useful complement to ongoing efforts to degrade it militarily, and at the same time channel important support to communities in the region, which sorely need it.
Dakar/Brussels, 16 May 2019