Nigeria’s overstretched military will be pleased that the U.S. is moving ahead with plans to sell the country a dozen small attack planes for its fight against Boko Haram. The high-tech gear on the single-engine Embraer A-29 Super Tucano should improve precision targeting by the Nigerian forces to chase scattered fighters and help avoid disastrous mistakes such as the Jan. 17 bombing of a displaced persons camp that killed as many as 236 people. But with Boko Haram already in retreat and attention shifting to more permanent safety and security, the aircraft also might be of limited use.

A military patrol along National Route 1, now a de facto home to tens of thousands of Nigerians fleeing Boko Haram, near Diffa, Niger.
A military patrol along National Route 1, now a de facto home to tens of thousands of Nigerians fleeing Boko Haram, near Diffa, Niger. Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Adam Ferguson

The sale, initiated by the Obama administration last year, would strengthen the Multinational Joint Task Force fighting Boko Haram in the Lake Chad region, a group of Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, Chad and Benin. Despite opposition to the deal from human rights advocates over failures of Nigeria’s military to protect civilians in the fighting and over alleged abuses, key U.S. lawmakers previously skeptical of the sale now support it.

But the military picture has changed enough since the election of President Muhammadu Buhari in 2015 that the usefulness of tactical aircraft with sophisticated targeting gear might be limited in the fight against Boko Haram. The militant group has been degraded to the point that it no longer controls any territory in Nigeria. Its fighters have scattered to the forests. While it continues to commit horrifying acts of terrorism, the group is no longer capable of mounting conventional attacks.

The security challenge for Nigeria now is more about what happens on the ground than what the government and its military can do from the sky.

The key to permanent defeat of Boko Haram in its home base of the impoverished northeast will depend on the government’s ability to restore safety and security over the long-term. Since the declaration of a state of emergency in 2011 that put the region under military control to contain Boko Haram’s insurgency, the area has lacked a formal police presence. The sometimes heavy-handed tactics of the military have deepened the distrust of state security that existed even before Boko Haram. The situation is further complicated by the emergence of armed, poorly regulated community vigilante groups whose future role is uncertain.

As active fighting recedes in northeast Nigeria, state, federal and local authorities need to map out a coordinated approach for the return of security to civilian control. The government—at all levels—must help build community relationships with a redeployed police force that can withstand continuing sporadic assaults by a weakened Boko Haram.

Regardless of whether the sale is finalized and the planes delivered, community-level security and civilian protection will be the most important elements in the campaign to fully—and finally—eradicate the danger posed by Boko Haram.

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