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.

Related Publications

Amid Rising Sahel Violence, Burkina Faso Builds a Response

Amid Rising Sahel Violence, Burkina Faso Builds a Response

Thursday, May 16, 2019

By: James Rupert

A perfect storm of violence is breaking upon Africa’s Sahel. Since late 2018, communal conflicts—many over access to food, water or productive land—have produced thousands of deadly attacks. Across the region, nearly 4,800 people died in conflicts from November to March, according to the violence-monitoring group ACLED. The greatest surge in bloodshed is in Burkina Faso, where communal militias or religious extremists killed 500 people over five months. But amid the dire headlines, governments and civic groups in Burkina Faso and other Sahel countries cite progress in stabilizing communities with a basic step that simply has seldom been undertaken: broad, local dialogues among community groups, police forces and officials. Community leaders and government officials say they are now expanding those dialogues to improve national security policies to help counter the tide of violence.

Fragility & Resilience; Justice, Security & Rule of Law

Nigerians Head to the Polls Again for State Elections

Nigerians Head to the Polls Again for State Elections

Thursday, March 7, 2019

By: Aly Verjee; Chris Kwaja

On March 9, Nigerians return to the polls to elect governors and state legislators. The balloting follows the presidential elections held February 23, which saw the incumbent president, Muhammadu Buhari, re-elected for another four-year term. USIP’s Chris Kwaja and Aly Verjee discuss how Buhari’s victory may impact the state elections, Nigerians’ seeming disenchantment with voting, and how to avert potential violence.

Democracy & Governance; Electoral Violence

What’s at Stake in Nigeria’s 2019 Elections?

What’s at Stake in Nigeria’s 2019 Elections?

Saturday, February 16, 2019

By: Oge Onubogu ; Chris Kwaja; Aly Verjee

On Saturday, over 84 million eligible Nigerian voters are set to go to the polls to elect their next president and members of the National Assembly, with state-level elections to be held on March 2. Among the 73 presidential candidates, incumbent Muhammadu Buhari and former Vice President Atiku Abubakar are the top two contenders. As Africa’s most populous country with its biggest economy and democracy, Nigeria is a bellwether for the continent and these elections will be widely watched by the region and international community. USIP’s Oge Onubogu, Chris Kwaja and Aly Verjee look at why these elections matter, security challenges surrounding the polls, and how the U.S. can support Nigeria beyond the elections.

Democracy & Governance; Electoral Violence

Oge Onubogu on Nigeria’s Elections

Oge Onubogu on Nigeria’s Elections

Thursday, February 14, 2019

By: Oge Onubogu

As Africa’s most populous country with its biggest economy, Nigeria is a bellwether for the continent. On Saturday, Nigerians will go to the polls to elect their next president and members of the National Assembly. This critical election will be a test of the resilience of Nigeria’s democratic institutions and widely watched by the international community, says USIP’s Oge Onubogu.

Democracy & Governance

View All Publications