Revitalizing U.S. Strategy in Nigeria to Address Boko Haram

In December 2015, Nigeria triumphantly announced it “technically defeated” Boko Haram, declaring victory against one of the world’s most brutal violent extremist organizations (VEO).[1] In 2018, Boko Haram continues to incite terror through high profile kidnappings and deadly bombings across Nigeria and the Lake Chad Region. Yet, the message remains the same, the latest installment coming in February from the Nigerian Army Theater Commander who avowed Boko Haram is now “completely defeated” after coalition forces drove them out of Sambisa Forest once again.[2] If the recent surge in gray zone conflict literature underscores one thing, it is that the definition of victory is fleeting against a threat specializing in ambiguity.

Despite a multitude of victory sound bites, research from BBC Monitoring indicates Boko Haram’s attacks have just as frequent and deadly over the past two years.[3] Boko Haram continues to pose a significant challenge to sovereignty in Nigeria and therefore a threat to U.S. national interests. Instead of expecting more from the same approach, it is time to update the counter-Boko Haram strategy. The United States can revitalize the strategy by increasing foreign military sales; enhancing the security forces assistance (SFA) mission to include aviation training and nonlethal effects focused on information, electronic warfare, and cyber support; and incentivizing disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) efforts in Nigeria.

Why Nigeria Matters

Africa is a critical geostrategic priority for the United States due to its sustained economic growth, abundant natural resources, and growing entrepreneur class.[4] Within Africa, Nigeria is, relatively speaking, a super-power—the largest economy, the largest producer of oil, and the most populated.[5] Economically, Nigeria runs a trade surplus with the United States importing over $5.5 billion in U.S. goods annually.[6] Despite experiencing a slight recession in 2016 for the first time in two decades, the Nigerian economy continues to recover thanks to gross domestic product growth in 2017 and even better estimates for 2018.[7] Recently, much of the recovery is anchored by increased oil and natural gas production, along with higher petroleum prices. Though abundant in many natural resources, oil and natural gas are the country’s mainstays. Nigeria is Africa’s largest petroleum producer, 12th largest in the world, and boasts the largest natural gas reserves on the continent.[8] Astoundingly, Nigeria is also the world’s fourth largest democracy, and the population is projected to surpass that of the United States before 2050—Nigeria is on track to become the third largest country in the world in just over three decades.[9] As the beacon of Africa, the long-term stability and economic growth of Nigeria is inextricably linked to the continent’s future.

Continuing Challenges to Sovereignty

Since the Boko Haram insurgency began in earnest in 2009, it continues to serve as a credible challenge to sovereignty in Nigeria and other states in the the region. Their stated goal is to overthrow the Nigerian government and replace it with a religious state.[10] Accordingly, the U.S. Department of State officially designated Boko Haram a Foreign Terrorist Organization on November 14, 2013.[11] The violence perpetrated by Boko Haram is responsible for generating a humanitarian emergency, displacing over two million people and creating a food crisis for an additional eight million.[12] The humanitarian and refugee crisis also creates regional challenges to sovereignty throughout the Lake Chad Region, to include Chad, Niger, and Cameroon. These nations are unable to control their borders, quell cross-border violence, or support the influx of displaced persons due to already-severe humanitarian situations within their territories. Complicating matters, Boko Haram factions are also aligning with Islamic State factions, giving way to new streams of manning and resources for both groups.[13] The result is a distressed region in dire need of assistance to address the Boko Haram challenge to sovereignty.

U.S. National Security Objectives and the Plan to Fix Nigeria

The U.S. National Security Strategy states “the U.S. seeks sovereign African states…integrated into the world economy, able to provide for their citizens’ needs, and capable of managing threats to peace and security.”[14] The current conditions in Nigeria and the Lake Chad Region do not satisfy U.S. strategic goals as outlined in the National Security Strategy. A sovereign Nigeria, able to provide for its citizens, is predicated on a stable security environment. To that end, the U.S. National Defense Strategy prescribes U.S. military forces in Africa will work “by, with, and through local partners and the European Union to degrade terrorists...” and “ the capability to counter violent extremism.”[15] As the regional combatant command, U.S. Africa Command (USAFRICOM) serves as the lead agency to implement the mission outlined in the National Defense Strategy to achieve the objectives of the National Security Strategy.

General Thomas D. Waldhauser, Commander of USAFRICOM (Nathan Herring/US Army Photo)

While local security is paramount, a purely military solution cannot solve all of Nigeria’s problems. The conflict in Nigeria is a result of decades of widespread grievances regarding corrupt governance, lack of accountability among elites, and economic inequality.[16] Future stability relies on not only addressing Boko Haram (a symptom) but rather the root cause of the conflict.[17] Addressing the root is outside the scope of USAFRICOM’s capabilities, highlighting the criticality of a whole-of-government approach spanning the U.S. Department of State and other joint, interagency, intergovernmental, and multinational agencies. In the 2018 USAFRICOM posture statement to Congress, General Waldhauser stressed the combatant command’s whole-of-government approach using the specific skills sets of interagency partners to synchronize and complement its strategy.[18]

Furthermore, the regional humanitarian crisis requires a regional solution. Numerous reports claim Nigerian border countries are forcibly returning refugees, a clear violation of humanitarian principles and refugee conventions.[19] As Chad, Niger, and Cameroon work to strengthen their border security and address humanitarian concerns, they are growing weary of committing additional resources to “a Nigeria problem.”[20] Persistent regional unrest and a slow rate of progress demand that the United States revitalize the current approach to meet the demands of partners throughout the region, as well as counter the evolving Boko Haram threat.

Recommended Updates to the U.S. Counter-Boko Haram Strategy

Revitalizing the U.S. counter-Boko Haram strategy is best accomplished by increasing foreign military sales (FMS); enhancing the security force assistance mission to incorporate aviation training and non-lethal effects; and incentivizing disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration efforts in Nigeria.

Super Tucano light attack aircraft (Reddit)

Last fall, the United States approved the pending sale of twelve Super Tucano light attack aircraft to Nigeria.[21] While the United States should take more steps to increase FMS, convincing U.S citizens and allies to support the effort will not be an easy task.[22] One of the biggest criticisms of the recent deal stems from an ethical debate about providing weapons to a military saddled with allegations of war crimes and human rights violations.[23] Due to significant congressional discourse, the Obama administration delayed the final sale of the Super Tucanos for years, and it took the new Trump administration nearly a year to finally approve the 2016 proposal.[24] Meanwhile, Nigeria was busy making agreements to purchase twelve Su-30 fighter jets from Russia, three JF-17 Thunder multi-role fighters from Pakistan, and three Embraer EMB-314 Super Tucanos from Brazil.[25] The United States must carefully balance the interest of not only assisting Nigerian forces on the ground, but also strengthening diplomatic leverage globally. While the human rights discussion is undoubtedly pertinent, an equally relevant counterpoint is that Nigeria will buy from any country willing to sell, some of which likely have less concern for human rights than the United States. As a result, competitors such as Russia and China stand to gain significant economic and diplomatic leverage in Africa should they gain further access to the military sales market. Moreover, it is more challenging to professionalize the Nigerian force as a bystander; foreign military sales are often accompanied by extensive training packages which provides the United States with more opportunities for engagement to address professionalization challenges. Foreign military sales potentially bolster security, lighten the warfighting burden, strengthen alliances, and improve the trade balance—all wins for the United States. [26]

The security force assistance mission also needs to evolve from a focus on rudimentary targeting to incorporate more aviation and nonlethal effects. The principal strategic objective of USAFRICOM in West Africa and the Lake Chad Region is to contain and degrade Boko Haram by building partner capacity.[27] USAFRICOM supports these efforts by providing advisors, intelligence, training, and equipment while avoiding engagement in direct military operations.[28] A refined training regimen should accompany an increase in arms sales to Nigeria. In preparation for the delivery of eight A-29 Super Tucanos arriving in 2020, USAFRICOM must build partner capacity in air operations and teach the Nigerians how to incorporate air into the targeting cycle.[29]

In addition to the current intelligence support to Nigerian forces, an improved  U.S. strategy would increase nonlethal effects focusing on information, electronic warfare (EW), and cyber support. Arguably, the most influential clash between Nigeria and Boko Haram is a battle of narratives. The United States has considerable experience in this realm, recently recognizing information as a seventh joint function and restructuring military services appropriately.[30,31] Additionally, Nigeria boasts the largest growth in internet usage across the country and the Nigerian government acknowledges significant cybersecurity risks.[32] In the winter of 2017, the U.S. Consulate in Nigeria called for improved cybersecurity awareness and encouraged police units to develop anti-cybercrime units.[33] The relatively new cyber domain offers more attack vectors and room for ambiguity for not only cyber criminals but also terror groups such as Boko Haram. Much like the United States organizes military forces to be prepared to fight in the cyber domain, Nigeria can benefit from similar training. By increasing the awareness and competency of Nigerian forces on non-lethal effects such as cyber and electronic warfare, Nigeria can proactively attack threat groups like Boko Haram instead of being reactive to a change in tactics. Overall, the current security force assistance mission needs to evolve beyond traditional targeting. Nigerian Armed Forces are more than capable of defeating Boko Haram through lethal means when adequately resourced; what they can benefit from is increased proficiency incorporating aviation and nonlethal effects.

Thus far, this article emphasizes that security is paramount before the “reintroduction of politics.”[34] In essence, military assistance will improve the security environment, thus giving way to humanitarian assistance. Long-term success will stem from the Nigerian people’s ability to address the core grievances which spawned Boko Haram. Therefore, the last recommended improvement of the U.S. counter-Boko Haram strategy is to incentivize  more disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration efforts. This recommendation does not discount Nigerian efforts in this area to date.

Nigeria’s Civilian Joint Task Force and other community-based vigilantes serve nobly as a bridge between civilians and government security forces fighting Boko Haram.[35] Many non-governmental organizations and intergovernmental organizations are assisting in disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration efforts, and humanitarian aid currently dwarfs military support, as it should.[36] Recent security improvements by the Nigerian Armed Forces and USAFRICOM, however, will require even more focus on disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration in the future if these gains are to be consolidated. Incentivizing Nigeria to negotiate and reconcile with former Boko Haram insurgents will be central to a successful strategy. Potential enticements include discounted foreign military sales, trade incentives, and other creative partnerships. Furthermore, the United States must be ready to support a Nigerian solution, one which may include prisoner exchanges, integrating former insurgents into legitimate government positions, and calls for a reduction in the number of U.S. forces present in Nigeria.[37] Though disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration, efforts may not be uniquely American by design, they must still be incentivized and encouraged if the United States seeks stability in the heart of Africa.


Despite progress since the height of Boko Haram in 2014, this violent extremist organization remains a significant threat to Nigeria and the Lake Chad Region.[38] The eight-year conflict is now responsible for over 20,000 deaths, and the large-scale humanitarian crisis is on the verge of famine status.[39] Nigeria’s long-term success is critically important to the United States in the strategic battleground of the African continent. Both the evolving Boko Haram threat and the decreasing patience of war-weary regional allies suggests a revitalized strategy is needed. Improving the U.S. counter-Boko Haram is best accomplished by increasing foreign military sales; enhancing the security forces assistance mission to incorporate more aviation training and nonlethal effects such as information, electronic warfare, and cyber support; and incentivizing disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration  efforts in Nigeria. Incorporating these recommendations will set conditions for improved security and improved delivery of humanitarian aid, and allowing Nigeria to better address the grievances which enabled Boko Haram to emerge. Though Nigeria’s war with Boko Haram may be on track, the United States seeks to ensure the Government of Nigeria achieves a conclusive victory and another terrorist group does not emerge to recreate the horrors of Boko Haram.

Austin M. Duncan is an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps and the co-founder of Ender’s Galley. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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[1] “Nigeria Boko Haram: Militants 'technically defeated' – Buhari,”, December 24, 2015,

[2] Wale Odunsi, “Boko Haram completely defeated – Nigerian Army commander,”, February 4, 2018,

[3] Mark Wilson, “Nigeria's Boko Haram attacks in numbers - as lethal as ever,”, January 25, 2018,

[4] General Thomas D. Waldhauser, “United States Africa Command 2018 Posture Statement,” (speech, United States Congress, Washington, DC, March 6, 2018); General Thomas D. Waldhauser, “United States Africa Command 2017 Posture Statement,” (speech, United States Congress, Washington, DC, March 9, 2017).

[5] Lauren Ploch Blanchard and Tomas Husted, Nigeria: Current Issues and U.S. Policy, CRS Report for Congress RL33964 (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, March 11, 2016), i, RL33964.pdf; Virginia Comolli, Boko Haram: Nigeria’s Islamist Insurgency (London, UK: C. Hurst & Co., 2015), 155.

[6] Olubukola Ademola-Adelehin and Katie Smith, “Problem or partner? Why Nigeria matters to the U.S.,” The Hill, February 18, 2017,

[7] African Development Bank Group, African Economic Outlook (Côte d'Ivoire: African Development Bank Group, 2018), 4,

[8] Gas Exporting Countries Forum, “Nigeria,”, accessed April 10, 2018,

[9] United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, World Population Prospects The 2017 Revision (New York: United Nations, 2017), 5,

[10] Council on Foreign Relations, “Boko Haram,”, last updated March 5, 2015,

[11] U.S. Department of State, “Foreign Terrorist Organizations,”, accessed on April 10, 2018,

[12] USAID, “Lake Chad Complex Emergency Fact Sheet #5,” USAID Fact Sheet, January 4, 2018,

[13] Waldhauser, “United States Africa Command 2017 Posture Statement,” 13.

[14] The White House, The National Security of the United States of America (Washington, DC, 2017), 52, 2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905.pdf.

[15] U.S. Department of Defense, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Advantage (Washington, DC, 2018), 10, Documents/pubs/2018-National-Defense-Strategy-Summary.pdf.

[16] Patricio Asfura-Heim and Julia McQuaid, Diagnosing the Boko Haram Conflict: Grievances, Motivations, and Institutional Resilience in Northeast Nigeria (Arlington, VA: Center for Naval Analyses, January, 2015), iv,

[17] Ibid.

[18] Waldhauser, “United States Africa Command 2018 Posture Statement,” 9.

[19] BBC News, “Cameroon 'has forcibly returned 100,000 Nigerian refugees,'”, September 27, 2017,

[20] Waldhauser, “United States Africa Command 2018 Posture Statement,” 18.

[21] Defense Security Cooperation Agency, “Government of Nigeria – A-29 Super Tucano Aircraft, Weapons, and Associated Support,” Transmittal No. 16-55, August 3, 2017,

[22] Matthew Page, “Five Reasons Washington Should Rethink Selling Warplanes to Nigeria,” War on The Rocks, November 8, 2016,

[23] Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, “Nigeria 2015 Human Rights Report,” U.S. Department of State, April 13, 2016, ?version=meter+at+7&module=meter-Links&pgtype=article&contentId=&mediaId=&referrer=; Amnesty International, “Amnesty International Report 2015/16: The State Of The World's Human Rights,”, February 23, 2016, documents/pol10/2552/2016/ en/?version=meter+at+6&module= meter-Links&pgtype=article& contentId=&mediaId=& com%2F&priority=true&action=click&contentCollection=meter-links-click.

[24] Helene Cooper and Dionne Searcey, “After Years of Distrust, U.S. Military Reconciles With Nigeria to Fight Boko Haram,” The New York Times, May 15, 2016,

[25] John Campbell, “Russia Selling Su-30 Fighters to Nigeria,” Council on Foreign Relations, July 5, 2017,; Quwa Team, “U.S. Reportedly Greenlights Super Tucano Sale to Nigeria,”, April 10, 2017,

[26] Loren Thompson, “Why Foreign Military Sales Are Always Worth Less Than The Published Number,”, September 19, 2017, 09/19/why-foreign-military-sales-are-always-worth-less-than-the-published-number/#47495eed5d42.

[27] Waldhauser, “United States Africa Command 2018 Posture Statement,” 17.

[28] Ibid, 18.

[29] Defense Security Cooperation Agency, “Government of Nigeria – A-29 Super Tucano Aircraft, Weapons, and Associated Support,” Transmittal No. 16-55, August 3, 2017,

[30] Secretary of Defense, “Information as a Joint Function,” Memorandum, September 15, 2017,

[31] Tope S. Aladenusi, “Cyberharam: can Nigeria prepare for the next generation of terrorists?,” Deloitte, June 2015,

[32] Prince Osuagwu, “US wades into Nigeria’s cybersecurity problem,”, November 1, 2017,; Frontera, “More Dangerous Than Boko Haram, Nigeria’s New Biggest Terror Threat,”, October 23, 2016,

[33] Armin Haracic, “U.S. Fights Cybercrime in Nigeria,” Fifth Domain, November 1, 2017,

[34] Alexander Thurston, Boko Haram: The History of an African Jihadist Movement (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, November 14, 2017).

[35] Ned Dalby, “Fighting African insurgencies: Are vigilantes the solution?”, October 23, 2017,; Alexis Okeowo, “Inside the Vigilante Fight Against Boko Haram,” The New York Times Magazine, November 5, 2014,

[36] The United States Agency for International Development, “Active USAID Programs for the Lake Chad Basin Response,” last updated November 9, 2017, lake_chad_map_11-09-2017.pdf.

[37] Sam Wilkins, “From Security to Reconciliation: How Nigeria Can Win Its Bloody War with Boko Haram,” War on The Rocks, December 8, 2017,

[38] John Campbell, U.S. Policy to Counter Nigeria’s Boko Haram, Council Special Report No. 70 (New York, NY: Council on Foreign Relations, November 2014), 19,; News Express, “Confirmed: 20 out of Borno’s 27 local government areas now under Boko Haram’s control,” News Express Nigeria, December 29, 2014,

[39] UN News, “Nigeria: Famine averted but millions still at risk, stresses top UN relief official,” UN News, September 13, 2017,