The conflict is rapidly intensifying. We estimate that 7,000 people died in incidents related to the insurgency between July 2013 and June 2014, compared with fewer than 1,900 in the preceding year. These deaths account for more than a quarter of all the recorded deaths in the past 15 years.
the preceding five years. These statistics firmly place the Boko Haram insurgency as one of the most significant conflicts in the world. Nigerian casualties are now running more than double those in Afghanistan, and substantially higher than in Iraq just a few years ago. An estimated 3,120 civilian and military casualties were recorded in Afghanistan last year .
In Iraq, 4,207 fatalities were estimated in 2011 in the wake of the surge . The worsening conflict in
northern Nigeria already has suffered more casualties this year than the world’s most publicized contemporary wars.
How did things get this bad?
collapsed when Nigerian security forces staged an offensive that killed at least 700 people across several states. The action included the extra-judicial killing of the group’s leader, Mohammed Yusuf, and deadly, often indiscriminate, attacks on other buildings and settlements associated with Boko
After a year of regrouping, Boko Haram emerged under the leadership of Abubakar Shekau with a
more militant agenda and brutal tactics. Since then, there has been an escalation of attacks by
insurgents and a growing response by the Nigerian military. As the violence has concentrated in the
northeast, Borno State has become a de facto war zone. The group’s tactics have shifted and diversified from attacks on government installations to bombings, robberies, kidnappings, assaults on
churches and mainstream Muslim targets, and most recently the occupation of villages and towns,
indicating greater confidence and capacity.
In May 2013, the government declared a state of emergency in the northeastern states of Borno,
Yobe and Adamawa. In its current phase since July, the insurgency has mimicked the tactics of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, declaring a local caliphate and shifting approach from guerrilla-style attacks to the
conventional capture and consolidation of territory.
On Sept. 2, the insurgents seized the strategic town of Bama, located 45 miles away from Maiduguri.
Maiduguri itself remains under threat . The administration of President Goodluck Jonathan
has offered assurances that much is being done overtly and behind the scenes to blunt the
offensive. Meanwhile, many Nigerians in southern states and quite a number of politicians in the
capital of Abuja dismiss Boko Haram as a regional skirmish, rooted in local conditions and confined to their catchment area.
For the moment, Boko Haram is a network with local foundations and goals, but the rising scale of
conflict belies the easy dismissals of some observers. This is clearly the most lethal conflict that Nigeria has confronted in decades. It is being fought on a scale that is comparable to serious civil
strife in other parts of the world. The levels of casualties, internal displacement, social disruption
and government failure are fomenting a widespread crisis, spilling over the borders of neighboring
states such as Niger, Cameroon and Chad.
Political rulers, when confronted by an approaching existential threat, might normally be expected to
mobilize national resources to aggressively confront the insurgency. Yet Nigeria’s elites seem to be
detached, mired in political infighting, or distracted by opportunities to profit from poorly monitored
Although the motivations and strategic objectives of Boko Haram remain unclear, the increasing sophistication of the group’s attacks and the acceleration in its lethality underline the importance of a strong, coherent response — and the consequences of Nigeria’s failure to mount such a response.