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Coronavirus makes Boko Haram more dangerous than ever

Abubakar Shekau
Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau. Photo: The Cable

Boko Haram, one of the world’s deadliest jihadist groups, has long threatened the security of the vast swathes of West and Central Africa. But now the coronavirus pandemic is adding a new dimension of danger. 

Boko Haram – whose name means ‘Western education is forbidden’ – reached the height of its power five years ago, soon after it kidnapped 276 of mainly Christian schoolgirls from their school in the town of Chibok, northeastern Nigeria in 2014.

In 2015, the jihadists controlled an area of Nigeria equivalent to the size of Belgium. The fighters sought to turn themselves from insurgents to rulers and impose their ruthless interpretation of Islam over a so-called ‘caliphate’. 

Since then, national governments helped by their Western partners have beaten the group back, shrunk its territory and forced it into a gruesome guerrilla war.

Just before the pandemic struck, many political actors around the Lake Chad Basin in Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad were discussing how to consolidate these gains and ultimately, defeat Boko Haram. 

But now, local governments are scrambling to shore up their healthcare systems and redeploying precious resources away from fighting the jihadists. At the same time, Western nations are turning in on themselves, fretting about post-virus austerity and retrenchment.

The fight against Boko Haram has cost thousands of lives and displaced millions. But now there is a real risk that the group could make up lost ground and make the coronavirus pandemic worse. 

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I was born in Borno State and grew up in Yobe State, the group’s epicentre and have family members who still live in the region. I have received three death threats from Boko Haram’s leaders for my work analysing the conflict. But now the joint threat of Boko Haram and Covid-19 terrifies me.

Boko Haram’s attacks are a significant distraction for those trying to stop the virus from spreading.

Take Chad. The nation of around 15 million people confirmed its first case of coronavirus on March 19. The pandemic is bringing some of the most advanced health care systems in the world to their knees and Chad only has ten intensive care beds.

But the jihadists are making things far worse. Four days after Chad confirmed coronavirus had come to the country, Boko Haram launched a huge attack killing nearly 100 local soldiers, in one of the deadliest incidents in the country’s history. 

The damage was so significant that Idriss Déby, Chad’s dictator of thirty years, was forced to leave the capital and his country’s Covid-19 response behind and rush to Lake Chad with his troops to direct a military intervention.

On the same day in March, at least 47 Nigerian soldiers were killed in a Boko Haram ambush, as the country recorded a sharp rise in confirmed cases of coronavirus.

The head of Nigeria’s army had been preparing his troops to enforce lockdowns, transfer patients to hospitals and prepare for mass burials. But he was forced to leave the army headquarters and mount an offensive against the group.

It is clear that both attacks drew attention away from efforts to fight the virus and forced governments to fight on two fronts with stretched resources.

There is no doubt that Boko Haram recognises the opportunity that Covid-19 offers them. Boko Haram’s breakaway group, Islamic State West Africa Province, recently boasted that the pandemic is an opportunity to step up efforts and expand activities. 

In an editorial in Isil central’s bi-weekly Arabic language magazine, it celebrated recent attacks in the Lake Chad region. It said the virus and subsequent economic downturn would divert government attention, weaken capacity and increase fragility, giving its fighters more inroads.

The jihadists have a long history of targeting health and aid workers which will certainly imperil coronavirus testing and treatment efforts in remote areas.

The group has attacked polio immunisation campaigners, executed workers from Action Against Hunger and the International Committee of the Red Cross. If a vaccine were developed, Boko Haram would almost undoubtedly slow distribution in the areas they operate in.

The preachings may also damage the local people’s compliance with health measures and feed into widespread misconceptions about Covid-19.

The group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, has released recordings claiming non-Muslims and their Muslim puppets are using Covid-19 to attack Islam by stopping Muslims from practising their faith. He has encouraged people to keep taking part in group prayers and other religious activities.

In the most recent death threat I received from them last month, the 24-minute audio also mocked the government’s Covid-19 efforts.  

So far there have only been just over 20,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus and fewer than 700 reported deaths in Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad put together.

However, we must not be complacent. There have been reports of hundreds of unexplained deaths across northern Nigeria and testimonies from health care workers point towards a major outbreak of the virus. 

West Africa has many of the same characteristics that made Afghanistan a hotbed for extremist violence. If there is anywhere Isil can replicate its territorial achievements in Iraq and Syria, it is there.

While Western governments have their own struggles with the pandemic, they must recognise that the virus will only exacerbate the security situation in West Africa. They must keep up their support for the fight against extremist violence in the region.

The UK should proceed with the proposed deployment of an additional 250 British troops to the UN’s peacekeeping mission in Mali, which is another crucial part of the fight against jihadi groups that are becoming more and more connected. The US should also reconsider its reported move to withdraw its forces from West Africa.  

Meanwhile, in my part of the world, families and governments alike face an unholy alliance between brutal militias claiming to fight for God and a deadly new enemy in the form of the coronavirus.

  • Bulama Bukarti is Africa Analyst at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change

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