16 Jan 2015

Ignoring Boko Haram could be Nigeria’s greatest mistake

Finally the Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan made it to Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State (above). It’s an enclave of government control within an area largely controlled by the Islamist militants of Boko Haram.

Nigerian President Jonathan visits refugees in Maiduguri


Picture:¬†Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan visits victims who took refuge in ‘Teachers Village’ in Maiduguri Province of Borno State, Nigeria after Boko Haram attacked Baga City on 15 January.

In the last week, hundreds of people have limped in from the town of Baga and its environs, scene of what may yet prove to be the worst single massacre of the war.

“As a president I feel traumatised whenever I hear about these excesses, I feel very saddened,” he said to displaced people, staying in rough, insanitary camps.”But let me assure all Nigerians and indeed Internally Displaced People that the government is working very hard to make sure that you don`t stay in these camps for too long.”

Really? His government operates as if Boko Haram is a minor irritant, a mosquito on the body of Nigerian politics, rather than an existential threat. Yet across much of north eastern Nigeria, the army is on the run.

Boko Haram has seized uniforms and weapons and set up a de facto caliphate not unlike IS, the Islamists in Syria and Iraq.

“Locals are always calling for reinforcements,” said a journalist in Maiduguri who wanted to remain anonymous. “Where they need 200 troops there are only 50. If they need 50 bullets they are given just 15 or 20.”

Yesterday the US Secretary of State John Kerry said he had been talking to Philip Hammond, his British counterpart, about a new package of help for Nigeria, and the Ghanaian President, John Mahama, said today that West African leaders will meet next week to discuss creating a military force to combat the Islamists.

But even as these ideas are being floated, the authorities in neighbouring Niger are bundling refugees from the conflict into buses and sending them back over the border to Maiduguri. How can they do that when people are still fleeing in rickety canoes across Lake Chad, fearful of the militants’ next strike?

Two weeks after the Baga massacre, reporters in Maidguri are only now able to find eyewitnesses who can tell the story of what happened in Baga on January 3rd.

One woman, quoted by Reuters, who ran away from Baga with her five children and her husband, said she saw insurgents run over women and children with their cars, shoot at people and use knives to cut their throats in the street. The journalist I spoke to said people who had been hiding in the bush had told him that when they emerged, Boko Haram forced them to dig mass graves for their relatives.

“There were dozens thrown into each grave,” he said. “Women and children were forced to participate.”

President Goodluck Jonathan has moved onto the next stop on his election campaign tour. He knows that northern Nigerians are unlikely to vote for him, because he is from the south, so why tarry in Maiduguri, drawing attention to the problem?

But the failure of the Nigerian government and military to contain Boko Haram becomes clearer by the day, and the jihadis now threaten to destabilise the whole region.

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