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Nigeria's military says it has reclaimed some towns seized by Islamist Boko Haram militants in the north east.

Reuters

More than 200 military vehicles rolled across the border into northern Nigeria this week from neighbouring Niger in the latest phase of the fast-expanding international campaign against Boko Haram.

The reinforcements swiftly recaptured the town of Damasak, which the Islamist radical militia had held since last November. It was yet another setback for Boko Haram. Over the past month, town after town in Boko Haram territory has been quickly regained in an impressive ground and air offensive by a coalition of Nigerian security forces, foreign mercenaries and troops from Chad and Niger equipped with a growing arsenal of helicopter gunships, fighter jets and other modern weaponry.

It raises a painful question: Why did it take so long? Why did an estimated 13,000 Nigerians have to die over the past five years before Nigeria's political leaders – and those of neighbouring countries – took the insurgency seriously?

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The evidence this month suggests that the biggest obstacle was the lack of political and military will, rather than any inherent strength in the Boko Haram rebellion.

For years, it's been clear that the Nigerian government needed to wage a carefully organized and professional military campaign against Boko Haram. The besieged people of northern Nigeria were pleading for help. Last April, those appeals were joined by a loud chorus of political leaders from around the world, shocked and angered by Boko Haram's kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok.

Yet little was done. Almost unopposed, Boko Haram continued to capture more territory, culminating this January with a massacre that killed hundreds of civilians in the Nigerian town of Baga. Witness after witness, in town after town, described how Nigerian soldiers and police had fled at the first signs of attack, allowing Boko Haram to capture each town easily.

Finally, with a national election approaching in February and President Goodluck Jonathan in political trouble, the Nigerian military suddenly announced its long-awaited campaign. It declared that the campaign would begin on February 14 – the exact date of the election. Under heavy pressure from the military, Nigeria's election commission agreed to postpone the election by six weeks to let the military campaign unfold.

The election delay was a huge benefit for Mr. Jonathan, whose electoral campaign is much better-financed than that of his main opponent, Muhammadu Buhari. The military victories, too, are a major political advantage for Mr. Jonathan, who can claim credit for dramatic successes against Boko Haram in the final days before the March 28 election.

With billions of dollars in annual oil revenue, the Nigerian government could have acquired the necessary military equipment to launch the offensive against Boko Haram much earlier. It could also have recruited support much earlier from its neighbours, particularly Chad, whose battle-hardened army has been achieving spectacular successes against the insurgents in recent weeks. It's difficult to imagine how it could be a coincidence that the military offensive began at the exact time when Mr. Jonathan's election campaign needed it most desperately.

The likely scenario now is that Boko Haram will be pushed out of all major towns and cities in northern Nigeria, but it will shift to a different strategy – classic terrorist bombings and hit-and-run attacks on unprotected villages and civilians. It cannot defeat the international military force in open combat so it will melt into the bush and launch ambushes and raids on softer targets.

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There were obvious examples of this new strategy on Tuesday. Instead of attacking the military coalition, Boko Haram used bombs and raids to kill dozens of people in two northern towns. It killed about a dozen people in the town of Ngamdu, on the main road between Borno state and Yobe state. And about 100 kilometres away, in the city of Maiduguri, a female suicide bomber killed at least 12 people in an explosion near a market.

Maiduguri is the main city of northeastern Nigeria, the birthplace of Boko Haram and a repeated target for Boko Haram attacks. Just three days before the latest explosion, several bombs had exploded in the same city, killing more than 50 people. On the same day, Boko Haram had pledged its allegiance to the self-proclaimed Islamic State, the extremist movement that controls large parts of Syria and Iraq.

The pledge was widely expected and had little military significance, but it signalled an ideological partnership between two of the world's most ruthlessly violent organizations.

A crucial question now is whether the Nigerian military will continue to pursue Boko Haram with equal vigour after the March 28 election. Even if it does, it might be too late to crush the insurgency. By delaying its campaign for so long, the Nigerian government has allowed Boko Haram to entrench itself as a deadly force across the north.

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