A recent increase in Boko Haram attacks on Nigerian troops suggests the ISIS affiliate is again trying to disrupt elections in the country. Nigeria is heading for its sixth consecutive general election since it returned to democracy in 1999. Just as the Salafi-jihadi group did during the 2015 election, Boko Haram, which believes democracy is idol worship and against its extremist worldview, has been attacking government targets since President Muhammadu Buhari launched his re-election bid on 18 November, ahead of the vote in February 2019.
That same day, at least 118 soldiers, including a unit commander, were reportedly killed while over 150 others remain unaccounted for after Boko Haram assaulted a Nigerian Army battalion in the northeastern border town of Metele, in Borno state. The following day, when former vice president and main opposition candidate Atiku Abubakar launched his presidential campaign, insurgents attacked a rescue team sent to recover the bodies of the previous day’s victims, causing additional casualties. The Boko Haram faction popularly called Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP) claimed responsibility for the attack. These are just two examples of renewed attacks in recent months that echo the group’s attempts to thwart elections in the past.
Like other Salafi-jihadi groups, Boko Haram rejects every system perceived to have originated from a Judaeo-Christian Europe, from Western-style education to secular government to democracy. The group brands democracy as taghut (an idol worshipped other than Allah) and treats Muslims who participate in elections and electioneering activities as infidels. It treats every person who takes part in democracy by casting ballots or vying for elective posts as a viable target. The group justifies attacking Muslims by citing their participation in democratic elections. For example, in claiming responsibility for a January 2017 mosque bombing that killed a professor and three others, a factional leader of the group, Abubakar Shekau, said it carried out the attack because the university was mixing “Islam with democracy”.
Just as the Salafi-jihadi group did during the 2015 election, Boko Haram, which believes democracy is idol worship and against its extremist worldview, has been attacking government targets since President Muhammadu Buhari launched his re-election bid.”
This is not the first time Boko Haram has attempted to disrupt Nigeria’s democracy. In a February 2015 video message in Arabic and Hausa, Shekau vowed to stop that year’s election, saying, “This democratic election will not hold even if we are dead. . . . Allah will never allow you to do it.” Just before the poll, the militia stepped up attacks on civilian and military targets, overrunning villages to the extent that it forced Abuja to postpone the election by six weeks. On election day, 28 March, the insurgents sought to make their threat real by killing over a dozen people and torching homes in several villages in the northeastern state of Gombe, forcing voters to abandon the polling stations.
Other factors may have also contributed to the recent surge. First, ISWAP may have been taken over by more hard-line members. In September, a Nigerian newspaper reported that Mamman Nur, the de facto leader and ideologue of ISWAP, had been killed by his own lieutenants for being “not as rough as Shekau”. Second, there are signs that Nigerian troops feel disillusioned and exhausted from four years of fighting. Several Nigerian newspapers anonymously reported a soldier who had survived the recent assaults complaining of “inadequate ammunition”. In August, soldiers who were stationed at Maiduguri international airport for redeployment protested for hours, shooting into the air and disrupting flights. “We need some rest, we are war-weary and need to see our families,” one of them said.
Abuja must do more to thwart Boko Haram from disrupting Nigeria’s electoral process, especially in areas most hit by the group”
Disrupting Nigeria’s democracy would be another achievement for a group that claims to fight for Islam and has been unleashing terror for about a decade now. While Boko Haram may not be capable of substantially affecting the country’s ability to go to the polls next February, the ISIS affiliate presents a real threat to people in areas where it is active. As it has in the past, Boko Haram can certainly hamper electoral proceedings and scare voters away from the ballot box.
In addition to the challenge of dealing with a huge number of internally displaced people, the surge in attacks may stoke fears that could affect the planning and holding of the election, as well as voter turnout. What is more, opposition politicians have started to weaponise these incidents against the incumbent president, while the ruling party’s supporters accuse the opposition of working with Boko Haram to disrupt the election.
The recent attacks are an unfortunate reminder that Boko Haram remains an imminent threat to Nigeria and that the country may see yet more attacks by the group in the run-up to the 2019 vote. Abuja must do more to thwart Boko Haram from disrupting Nigeria’s electoral process, especially in areas most hit by the group; relieving exhausted soldiers and providing their substitutes with more weapons may be one way to do this. Ruling and opposition politicians must work together to confront this common enemy.