Tens of thousands of residents of northeastern Nigeria’s Borno State have fled their homes - thousands of them into neighbouring Niger and Cameroon - following airstrikes by Nigerian fighter jets on Boko Haram (BH) camps from 15 May.
The attacks on BH camps in northern parts of Borno close to the borders with Chad, Niger and Cameroon followed the 14 May declaration of a state of emergency by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan in the northeastern states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa.
Musa Karimbe fled his village of Bulabute near Marte, BH's major stronghold in the area, on 17 May to Kusiri, 100km inside Cameroon where he is staying with a friend. "We are afraid of a repeat of Baga attacks on our homes," Karimbe said, referring to fighting on 16 and 17 April between troops from the Chad-Niger-Nigeria Joint Multi-National Task Force and BH members in which 187 residents from Baga town on the shores of Lake Chad were killed, and 2,128 homes burnt, according to Human Rights Watch.
People from villages around Abadam District, including Malamfatori, fled to Bosso in Niger’s Diffa Region, while others have taken refuge in the Cameroonian towns of Fotokol, Amchide, Darak and Kusiri, according to interviews with displaced Nigerians. Officials say 2,000 people have fled across borders, though several of the displaced told IRIN they thought the number was higher.
The number of casualties from the fighting is not yet clear, though Nigeria defence spokesman Brig-Gen Chris Olukolade said on 17 May that there had been BH casualties, and that 100 BH members had been arrested.
An official with the Nigerian Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) in the capital, Abuja, said they had not yet been able to establish contact with their teams to find out the details of the humanitarian situation, because telephone networks in Borno and Yobe states have been shut down since 16 May. “The areas where military operations are ongoing, are not accessible,” he told IRIN.
Residents of Gamboru Ngala in Borno State said military forces screened them thoroughly before allowing them to cross the border; others passed through the network of unofficial trade routes that criss-cross the region.
The military has placed a “food blockade” on northern Borno, refusing to allow trucks laden with household commodities from leaving Maiduguri (the state capital) to the northern part of the state, in case they end up in BH hands. As a result, prices have shot up, said Bukar Zanna, head of the Traders’ Association in Gamboru Ngala.
Since January 2013 BH has taken control of Marte, Mobbar, Gubio, Guzamala, Abadam, Kukawa, Kala-Balge and Gamboru Ngala local government areas in northern Borno, chasing out local government officials, taking over control of government buildings and imposing Sharia law.
This prompted President Goodluck Jonathan to declare last week that he would “take all necessary action... to put an end to the impunity of insurgents and terrorists,” including the arrest and detention of suspects, taking over BH hideouts, the lockdown of suspected BH enclaves, raids, and arresting anyone possessing illegal weapons.
The military crackdown came after several attempts at dialogue - the most recent on 17 April, when the president set up a 26-member Amnesty Committee (headed by Nigerian Special Duties Minister Kabiru Tanimu) with a three-month mandate to try to convince BH to lay down its arms in exchange for a state pardon and social reintegration.
Dialogue soon broke down, and BH stepped up bombing attacks and assassinations in April and May in apparent defiance of the proposed amnesty. BH has repeatedly rejected peace talks, citing insincerity on the part of the Nigerian government following a series of failed mediated negotiations.
On 8 and 9 May the Amnesty Committee met Nigerian security chiefs in Abuja and then BH members in detention in Kuje prison near Abuja to gather information on how to reach out to the BH leadership for talks. But on 9 May around 200 BH gunmen, armed with rocket launchers and rifles, launched coordinated attacks on security forces in the town of Bama in northern Borno, including a military barracks, a prison and police buildings, killing 42 people including soldiers, policemen, prison guards and civilians and freeing 105 inmates. Some 13 BH gunmen were killed in the attacks, according to the military.
In a 13 May video, BH leader Abubakar Shekau rejected the government’s amnesty overtures and vowed not to stop his group’s violent campaigns to establish an Islamic state in Nigeria.
The government’s flip-flop approach is evidence of its frustration with the deteriorating security situation. But the next steps are not clear. “Deployment of troops and the declaration of war on BH by the president have put a huge stumbling block on the path of the Amnesty Committee,” said Mohammed Kyari, a political science professor at Modibo Adama University of Science and Technology in neighbouring Adamawa State capital Yola, which is also affected by the emergency decree.
“It will now be difficult to win the confidence of BH which is crucial in bringing them to the negotiating table because you can’t talk of peace on one hand and be deploying troops on the other.” A leading rights activist in the north, Shehu Sani, who has participated in past negotiations with BH, agrees.
But many say the government had no choice. Yahaya Mahmud, a prominent constitutional lawyer in Nigeria, told IRIN: “No government anywhere will allow a group to usurp part of territorial sovereignty. The declaration of a state of emergency was necessitated by the constitutional obligation to restore a portion of Nigeria’s territory taken over by an armed group which involves the suspension of constitutional provisions relating to civic rights.”
The fear now is that the more violent the crackdown, the greater the chance of radicalizing angry young men to join the rebel cause. Babagoni Kachalla, a resident of Wuljo, one of the areas taken over by BH in northern Borno, said BH has been going village-to-village since January in all-terrain vehicles fitted with loudspeakers to gather recruits and preach their ideology. In the days leading up to the military response, BH fighters stepped up their recruitment drive, said Borno State residents.
Political scientist Kyari worries, in response to the crackdown, that BH will just shift their bases. “BH can’t face Nigerian troops in conventional war; the troop deployment to northern Borno means they will move out to other towns and cities with less military presence and launch guerrilla war, which is deadlier.”
The deployment of troops to Maiduguri in June 2011 and military crackdowns pushed some BH members northwards within Borno, and others to northern Mali, which they fled during the French, Chadian and Malian intervention in the north.
Many analysts and politicians are pushing for dialogue as the only way out of the impasse, but trust between the government and BH is very low.
Conspiracy theories in the north abound, including that prominent politicians, including the president, are fanning some of the violence in the north since they would benefit from chaos continuing there in the run-up to 2015 presidential elections.
While not endorsing the theories, Abdulkarim Mohammed, author of Paradox of Boko Haram, said they should be investigated if the government is serious about understanding the roots of BH’s insurgency.
The Amnesty Committee stated yesterday it would meet BH leaders anywhere they chose, to negotiate a way out of the violence.
If the government does not win the confidence of BH soon, to at least bring them to the negotiating table, we are going to be in this much longer than we thought,” said Kyari, adding: “and if it is not managed well, it will engulf neighbouring countries.”