NIGERIA has launched a large-scale military campaign to flush out Islamist militants from their bases in remote border areas, after president Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in the north-east.
Nigerian troops were deployed in large numbers yesterday, part of a plan to rout an insurgency by the Boko Haram Islamist group that has seized parts of the region.
“The operations, which will involve massive deployment of men and resources, are aimed at asserting the nation’s territorial integrity,” defence chiefs said.
The campaign targets semi-desert areas of the three states in which Mr Jonathan declared an emergency – Borno, Adamawa and Yobe, three of Nigeria’s poorest and most remote.
The insurgency has cost thousands of lives and destabilised Africa’s most populous country since it began in 2009, but it has mostly happened far from economic centres such as Lagos. The capital Abuja was, however, bombed in 2011 and 2012.
Since 2010, more than 1,600 people have been killed in attacks by the Islamic insurgents. Nigeria’s military has recently said Islamic fighters were now using anti-aircraft guns mounted on lorries to repel state forces, leading to the prospect that overstretched government troops could be outgunned.
Army trucks carrying soldiers entered Yola and Maiduguri yesterday to seek out militants from Boko Haram, whose rebellion has targeted the security forces, Christians and politicians in the mainly Muslim north. The name Boko Haram means the West is Haram, or filth, the opposite of Halal in Islam.
The troop deployment is likely to placate some of Mr Jonathan’s critics, who had accused him of not facing up to the crisis, although some northern politicians have already voiced concerns over rising tensions.
It is unlikely those tensions will boil over to the rest of Nigeria. The Islamists have a foothold across the north, but nothing like the power they have in the three north-east states. In December 2011, Mr Jonathan declared a state of emergency in some local areas, after a church bombing blamed on Boko Haram killed 37 people, but he lifted it in July 2012.
Ayo Oritsejafor, head of the powerful Christian Association of Nigeria, said the move showed Mr Jonathan’s plan to offer the rebels an amnesty had been misguided, saying “no reasonable agreement can be reached with terrorists”.
It is unclear whether greater military might can win a battle against an adversary adept at melting away under pressure, only to pop up again elsewhere.
“The government is thinking it can crush them like Sri Lanka crushed the Tamil rebels,” said Kole Shettima, chairman of the Centre for Democracy and Development. “But in Sri Lanka they pushed them to the water, whereas here they will just flee into the desert and come back.”
In the Borno state capital Maiduguri, the biggest city in the area and birthplace of the insurgency, the mood was tense yesterday. Shops were mostly shut and there were few people on the streets. Schools were closed.
Maiduguri residents are used to living under military restrictions – a curfew kills activity at 6pm every day – and soldiers regularly patrol the streets. Residents said the military presence had increased. “I have never seen soldiers on the move quite like this before.” said Maiduguri resident Ahmed Mari.
Mr Jonathan’s orders followed growing evidence that a better equipped, better armed Boko Haram now controls territory around Lake Chad.
“What we are facing is an insurgency by terrorist groups which pose a serious threat to territorial integrity,” Mr Jonathan said in a televised address. “Already, some parts of Borno have been taken over.”
Goodluck’s forces target jihadists’ strongholds
Militants control at least ten local government districts of Borno state – an arid region that once hosted one of West Africa’s oldest medieval Islamic empires – and are using porous borders with Cameroon, Chad and Niger to smuggle in arms and mount increasingly bold attacks.
Security sources say their strategy appears to be similar to that of the al-Qaeda-linked militants who overran Mali late last year, before the French kicked them out in January: take over remote desert areas and establish a de facto rule there, then use that as a base from which to expand.
They have forged growing links with jihadists across the Sahara region, intelligence sources say. But they also enjoy a degree of popular support among a poor, ill-educated populace.
“This state of emergency will not change anything if the people do not co-operate and start exposing members of Boko Haram,” said David John, a director in the state government.
A crackdown on Boko Haram in 2009 led to 800 deaths, including founder Mohammed Yusuf, who died in police custody. Instead of crushing the Islamists, it unleashed popular rage making them more deadly.