Demons in Nigeria’s northeast

2015-01-25 15:00

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As the country prepares to go to the polls, presidential candidates must remember that whoever wins will have to root out Boko Haram

Islamic militant group Boko Haram has been a thorn in Nigeria’s side for the past nine years. Picture: AP

Five years ago, when President Goodluck Jonathan took office, the question about Boko Haram was: What do they want?

With more than 5?000 people killed, 2?million displaced and land area roughly the size of northern Ireland now under the militant group’s control, the question now is: Where will they stop?

In one of the most deadly attacks since Boko Haram took up arms against the Nigerian state nine years ago, the Muslim fundamentalist sect overran an army base and killed an estimated 2?000 people in Baga in two weeks of sustained attacks.

The Nigerian government says only 150 people died in the attack, which began at the beginning of the year.

Baga, a fishing and farming town of 32?000 people located 840km northeast of the capital Abuja, is one of the towns in the 27 local governments in Borno State. Twenty of these towns are currently under the control of Boko Haram.

Baga district head Alhaji Baba Abba Hassan told an Abuja-based newspaper after the attacks: “Hundreds of people, especially the old, children and women, were killed.

The attackers have been going from house to house, searching for people, killing those they can find and burning everything in their way.”

How Boko Haram dislodged the military base in Baga that is occupied by the Multinational Joint Task Force, a formation comprising units of the Chadian, Nigerien and Nigerian armed forces, is a puzzle.

Boko Haram has apparently transformed from being just a Nigerian problem to becoming a subregional threat, with Cameroon also coming under frequent attack and refugees threatening a humanitarian crisis in Chad and Niger. Internally displaced people number in the hundreds of thousands.

But while Baga was counting its dead and wounded, the presidents of Niger and four other west African states were in Paris standing next to President François Hollande in a defiant march after the terror attack on satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and other parts of Paris that claimed 17 lives.

Jonathan was hundreds of kilometres away from Baga on a stomp to Lagos to campaign for his re-election on February 14. He has yet to say a word about the Baga attacks.

It’s not a huge disappointment that Jonathan has run out of excuses – or even words of sympathy.

Between August 2011, when the UN building in Abuja was attacked, and April last year, when 200-plus schoolgirls were abducted in Chibok, also in Borno State, the president has made more than two dozen reported vows to stamp out Boko Haram.

In between one empty vow and the next, the list of atrocities keeps piling up, especially in the three northeast states of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe.

Three deadly attacks in schools in Yobe and Adamawa last year left more than 200 pupils dead and the year closed with a bloody Friday attack on a mosque in Kano, a major commercial post in the northwest, which left more than 250 dead.

What is Jonathan doing apart from making vows? The three states in the northeast – the hotbed of Boko Haram onslaught – have been under a state of emergency for two years. The federal government has assumed direct responsibility for security, leaving the local and state governments with little real authority.

According to security consultant Andrew Noakes, 30?000 to 40?000 troops have been deployed in the affected areas. In

some areas, the troops have managed to forge a common front with local vigilantes and have recorded limited successes in repealing insurgent attacks.

Finance ministry records indicate that the government has spent billions since 2012 fighting the militant group. But like water off a duck’s back, the impact is hardly showing.

Instead, Boko Haram has grown from a bunch of miscreants opposed to Western education and used by politicians as cannon fodder into a fighting force with its flag planted in large parts of three out of Nigeria’s 36 states.

While the government blames the poor result on long years of military neglect, the disruptive nature of the new threat and complicity by the northern political elite, the opposition blames it on corruption.

Last August, wives of soldiers deployed in Gwoza, a town in Borno State, protested nude, claiming that their husbands were being sent to war without gear or ammunition. They claimed that the top brass were diverting funds meant for the troops. And the price is often paid on the front lines. Last year, 480 troops defected to Cameroon in what Nigeria’s military authorities would describe as a “tactical manoeuvre”.

A report on the defection by Cameroonian radio said: “The head of state [Paul Biya] has instructed that the columns of Nigerian soldiers who entered Cameroonian territory should be camped in specific locations and supervised by the Cameroonian army.”

Nigeria boasts Africa’s largest economy. It is, however, a measure of its diminished political profile that it took Hollande to convene a meeting of west African heads of state on a strategy to contain Boko Haram after Jonathan’s repeated attempts to rally the subregion failed.

From Jonathan’s body language, it appears that Baga, after burying its dead, may have to look after itself – at least until after next month’s elections. And that also applies to Chibok, which is still mired in grief over the missing girls.

Opposition presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari has promised to root out Boko Haram within a few months if elected. He believes that once corruption is stamped out, more than half of the problem would be solved.

Jonathan, for his part, has defended his record, saying that negligence by previous administrations has crippled the military’s fighting power. He said investments in training and a fresh supply of arms would roll back the insurgency, and called for a bipartisan approach.

Whether respite will come after the vote remains to be seen. But whoever wins the election on February 14 – Jonathan or Buhari – already has a tough job ahead.

Ishiekwene is the group managing director of the Abuja-based Leadership newspapers and a board member of the Global Editors’ Network

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