The Sambisa Forest in Nigeria’s North-Eastern state of Borno is larger than many countries at 60,000 square kilometers. It’s a former game hunting reserve, home to distinctively sparse vegetation, elephants and the world’s deadliest terror group – the Boko Haram.
Nigeria’s war against Boko Haram is riddled with inconsistencies. Merely six months after Muhummadu Buhari won the Nigerian election in March 2015, on the promise of crushing the terror outfit, the country’s defense spokesperson announced that Boko Haram had been “militarily defeated and weakened.” On December 27, 2016, President Buhari announced that the group had been ‘crushed’ – by which he meant, driven into their final stronghold in the forest.
Yet, the outfit’s stronghold in the forest remained unconquered. Only a few weeks ago, on June 25, the terrorists released a video showing their members praying in the forest. It features a 12-year-old boy with an AK-47, declaring:
You are saying you have finished us; it is a lie, we are here and you have not finished us.
The forest would be unfamiliar to many in the world, but it’s the centre of one of the deadliest kidnappings in history. In 2014, 276 schoolgirls were kidnapped from a secondary school in Chibok – by terrorists posing as the Nigerian military. Their condition was unknown for years, but the group said they were made brides of its members, later to be sold as slaves.
80 of the 276 schoolgirls who were kidnapped in 2014 were located in the Sambisa forest. It’s a place of terror, as both the locals and the wildlife have suffered from the terrorist occupation. But, in 2015, the Nigerian military claimed to have rescued over 200 women and 100 girls from a terror camp in the forest. None of them were from Chibok.
As of May 2017, 113 girls remain unaccounted for, according to the BBC. The difficulty of clearing the Sambisa forest is due to its geography – the shrubbery offers terrorists natural shelter, and the region is ridden with landmines. The tree cover makes aerial surveillance problematic.
The forest is just one of Boko Haram’s regions of influence. The group spans five countries – Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon, and Benin. Nigeria, as Africa’s most populous state as well as its largest economy, is its highest-profile target. Its network includes Al-Shabaab, Al-Qaeda and most prominently, ISIS, of which it is said to be the “West Africa Province“.
The military was unable to control the Boko Haram. They created mayhem. Fed up with their menace, local hunting groups organized themselves into vigilante groups, and have taken to hunting the Boko Haram terrorists like the game. But despite a global ‘war on terror’, Nigeria seems to fight Boko Haram alone.
The atmosphere is one of criticism of Nigeria’s approach – such as in January 2017, when the air force ran a bombing run with ‘incorrect coordinates’, killing 236 people including aid workers.
The international community has offered little more than hashtags and condemnation of the terror group. But the superpower in the room, the United States, has been wary of offering direct military aid – fearing Boko Haram’s infiltration of the Nigerian military. Before coming to power, Donald Trump questioned the need for military aid to Nigeria – though he has since approved a deal to sell attack aircrafts to the country.
But there is one country which has had significant experience in tackling insurgents in forests. For five decades, India has been fighting Maoist rebels called ‘Naxals’, in its forest-belt provinces. This, alongside a long-running war on terror in India’s states bordering with Pakistan.
India has positioned itself as a leader in the war on terror, particularly in South Asia and in the Indian Ocean Region. But there is little being done to aid its largest trade partner in Africa, Nigeria. With 35,000 Indians resident there, India has a stake in Nigeria’s security.
The Indian Connection
In 2015, former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE, Talmiz Ahmad, wrote an article on the global implications of ISIS rise. He called the outfit the ‘third stage’ in a global jihad. What makes the terror group different is its control of territory as well as its denationalized nature – with affiliates across the world such as Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram.
Talmiz predicts that, if left unchecked, ISIS’ desire for a global caliphate could result in a globalized bloc of terror outfits from North-Western Africa to the Levant, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.
Indeed, India has frequently asserted that there must be made no distinctions between terrorists – ‘good’ or ‘bad’. But this approach could be widened to include geographical distinctions. Nigeria is similar to India in many ways – a diverse, multi-ethnic democracy with a large population. Nigeria’s socioeconomic rise is hindered by the presence of Boko Haram, who have killed over 15,000 people since 2010 – displacing over two million.
Disturbingly, a shipment of 37 million ‘tramadol’ tablets from India was intercepted by Italian police in March this year. The consignment was to be sold in Libya, likely to the Islamic State. From there, it could spread across Africa – as Boko Haram are known to feed their child soldiers dates stuffed with tramadol.
The need for intelligence cooperation between India and Nigeria extends beyond defense to trade ties as well. In 2016, India’s vice-president, Hamid Ansari, met with his Nigerian counterpart Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, along with several business leaders from India. They acknowledged existing defense cooperation based on the 2007 ‘Abuja Declaration on Strategic Partnership between India and Nigeria.’ The promise was for greater defense cooperation, but the focus remained on trade.
The countries have exchanged military training teams before – but there is more to be done in joint counter-terrorism training and operations. India has, in the past, deployed thousands of peacekeepers to Africa in the past as part of United Nations Peacekeeping missions.
India enjoys good relations with each of the five countries involved in fighting Boko Haram. Major Indian telecom operators like Bharti Airtel maintain a sizeable presence in West Africa. There is scope for India to take a lead in tackling terror in Africa – and ensure that peace and normalcy is restored in the West African countries.
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