Keeping and protecting the northeastern city of Maiduguri is likely to be a major test for the Buhari administration over the coming months. Over the past weeks, there has been increasing evidence that Boko Haram and the Islamic State active in the region known as ISWAP have been chipping away slowly but surely at the presence of the Nigerian government, degrading its military positions, but also inflicting misery to the local populations to push for a rebellion, with the ultimate goal is to see the government exit Maiduguri. This is not likely going to happen, but the persistence and operational modes used by Boko Haram do suggest that the insurgents want to put the Nigerian government and its military in a bad spot.
Last week, the intensity of the massacres in the region was such that more population displacement is under way as people feel unprotected. Consider what happened on Sunday, 9 February. Boko Haram gunmen killed at least 30 people in an overnight raid on Auno village in Borno state, near the state capital Maiduguri. Motorists in a nearby road, 25 km away from Maiduguri, were particularly targeted. Women and children were kidnapped. The insurgents targeted motorists on a key highway linking Maiduguri to the nearby Yobe state. The motorists were parked overnight to comply with the military order to avoid traveling at night, because of recent attacks. They thought parking their overnight was safe enough, but the insurgents showed up and burned nearly 20 vehicles with their occupants on board. Burned alive for maximum impact! The assailants are said to be members of ISWAP. They then proceeded to the town of Auno where they burned at least dozens houses.
For many senior leaders in the Nigerian military, this may very well be the fault of those who died. The head of the anti-Boko Hram campaign known as Operation Lafiya Dole, Maj. Gen. Olusegun Adeniyi, went so far as blaming the victims, and accused them of being responsible of their own death. Adeniyi’s controversial statements include that “the refusal of motorists to obey orders of staying off the Maiduguri-Damaturu Highway caused the latest attack.” He said, “the attack at Auno was due to the excesses of motorists plying the road.” These statements show the state of mind of some the men in charge of securing the country. They are simply counter-productive and fuel anger against the Nigerian military.
Borno governor, Babagana Zulum, is among those who has not been able to contain his anger at the ineffectiveness of the military. This week, he lashed out at the army chiefs, accusing them of abandoning Borno residents and making them vulnerable and direct targets of insurgents. The governor said “the army withdraws to its bases and deserts the people every day at 5pm,” leaving the populations exposed to Boko Haram attacks. Zulum said since he became Governor, Auno was attacked six times by Boko Haram and pleaded for the return of the military to the troubled region.
As for President Buhari, his second term in office is likely to be judged on how the fight against Boko Haram will end, and so far, it looks bad. On Wednesday, 12 February, the President traveled to Borno to bring support to the restive northeastern region after the brutal attack of 9 February. There, and as he has done many times, he pledged to intensify the counter-insurgency campaign. Buhari pleaded with community leaders to support the military action in the region by providing information that would help contain the insurgency. But The president has been attacked for not doing enough to protect the civilian population and a recent escalation in terror attacks has given critics more fuel to their anti-Buhari narrative.
Some still consider Buhari as ill advised, and in fact they say he does not know the extent of the gravity of the crisis in the northeast. Nigerian politician Shehu Sani accused Buhari’s advisors of hiding the truth to the president as to the state of security in the country. Reacting to the Sunday killing of 30 people in Borno state, Senator Sani said, “The leaders only hail the president instead of telling him the truth.” He also defended the president, by saying that he should not be entirely to blame for the escalation of banditry and kidnappings “because the leaders privileged to meet him are afraid of telling him the truth.”
Meanwhile, Boko Haram has no problem showing disdain and defiance to the Nigerian government. Just hours after Buhari’s 12 February visit, Boko Haram attacked Jiddari-Polo, also just outside Maiduguri, in a raid that took place after the Muslim prayer around 7:15 PM, forcing residents to flee. There were reports of casualties as the military intervened, but the attack illustrates the level of defiance the insurgents have, challenging head on the authority of the president and the military.
This week’s attacks on villages near Midiguri like Tungoshe, Gubio and Gajiganna, and far from the Borno capital like Rann, shows that Boko Haram is relentlessly pursuing the fall of Maiduguri. It is possible that the Nigerian military has a plan and a strategy, but clearly they are obscure and poorly communicated to the Nigerian people and to the international community. They are certainly poorly executed on the ground. For the insurgent, Maiduguri is an important region to focus on. It hosts key agencies like the United Nations, and scores of humanitarian organizations operate there. Efforts to take over the city will always gather the interest of the international press, and that’s what Boko Haram and Islamic State want..remaining in the global spotlight.