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In the shadow of death: Borno residents relive fatal Boko Haram attacks

FOR residents of most towns in the North-Eastern states, particularly Borno, the expression ‘living a day at a time’ has come to acquire a real meaning.

Despite all the much-trumpeted military assaults on Boko Haram insurgents over the years, all that could be seen to have been achieved is, at best, a reduction in the operational base of the merchants of death. While the rampaging sect members have, apparently, been disallowed to operate freely in the state capitals, they seem to now vent their venom on residents of far-flung villages and communities in the hinterland. And residents of Konduga, in Konduga Local Government Area of Borno State, can tell this story with more vivid accuracy.    

Last week Tuesday (February 11, 2014), Al-Hassan was one of the few residents of the town who escaped the wrath of the suspected Boko Haram insurgents that invaded Konduga.  He recounted to Saturday Tribune how the sect’s merchants of death stormed the town about 5:00p.m. that day in more than 50 Toyota Hilux vehicles wielding sophisticated weapons, including Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPG), assault rifles and explosive devices.

The insurgents started shooting at everything in sight, and throwing explosives at public buildings and fear-struck residents. Some people fled to the bush while the town was thrown into confusion. By the time the dusts settled, over 57 people had been killed, and almost 70 per cent of the houses in the town destroyed.

Corpses littered the town, and several residents fled their homes. Al-Hassan reported seeing 20 female students kidnapped by the insurgents.

Another resident of the town, Yana Kwada (a teacher), who narrowly escaped being killed, spoke of seeing five female hawkers and 20 female students of the Government Girls Science School kidnapped by the insurgents. He had escaped being killed himself by hiding in the ceiling of his house – though he sustained burns from the heat from the nearby house that was set on fire by the rampaging sect members.

Another eyewitness told Saturday Tribune that the insurgents were in military uniforms with black clothes tied around their heads, and were shouting ‘Allahu Akbar (Allah is Great). From his account, it was obvious the gunmen that attacked Konduga were so well-kitted that they were even attempting to shoot down a military aircraft that flew past.

Prior to this attack, he said the villagers had informed the soldiers of the impending attack, but that military authorities allegedly waved off the report, assuring them that nothing would happen.

As if that was not enough; within the space of three days after the attack on Konduga, suspected Boko Haram insurgents invaded Izge town, in Gwoza Local Government Area of Borno State, on Saturday around midnight and killed over 100 people and injured numerous others.

Again, a resident of the area, one Mallam Bulama, said the gunmen were in military uniforms. He claimed the terrorists numbered about 100 and brandished sophisticated weapons. They shot indiscriminately at people and set many buildings and shops on fire.

An indigene of the town based in Maiduguri, who also lost his father-in-law in the attack, Adamu Izge, said the well-armed insurgents stormed the village about midnight on Saturday, and killed over 100 persons. According to him, they did not only kill the residents and set fire to their homes; they also chased those that escaped to the nearby villages and killed them.

Izge told Saturday Tribune that members of the Izge community in Maiduguri had expressed their displeasure to both the federal and state governments over the incessant attacks by insurgents.

Failure of leadership
While the blame game continues, even the governor of the state, Kashim Shettima, seems to have lost faith in the ability of the Federal Government to end the insurgency, given statements credited to him when he visited President Goodluck Jonathan on Monday in Abuja.

Shettima had declared in unambiguous terms that he believed that the country was in a state of war, and that the insurgents were winning it all the way, as they had hitherto successfully carried out their attacks anywhere and anytime they wanted to launch such.

He believes the Boko Haram insurgency is a failure of leadership – himself inclusive.

The situation now, as observed by Saturday Tribune in Maiduguri, the state capital, is one of pervasive loss of hope. Those who can afford to have been moving out of the state, while condemnation has continued to trail the attacks on communities in Konduga, Gwoza, Damboa and Chibok local government areas of the state, where over 300 people have been killed in the last two weeks.

Saturday Tribune gathered that Governor Shettima, who personally attended the funeral prayers of the 57 slain persons in Koduga, directed his Commissioner for Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs to release the sum of N100 million in order provide relief materials to residents and immediately start the reconstruction of buildings destroyed.

Shettima described the action of the insurgents as callous and barbaric, and urged all to pray for the restoration of peace to the area and the state.

Brute force fails to break violent sect
Hoping to rout out Boko Haram, Nigerian forces launched a crackdown in May 2013, swooping into towns, rounding up hundreds of youths and strafing suspected hideouts of the militia, who, despite being pushed back, continue to torment civilians and target security forces.

During the military operation – which saw a state of emergency decreed in the northeastern states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa – markets, homes and prayer sessions were raided. Men, and at times boys, were arrested, piled up on top of each other in trucks and whisked into detention, where they were held for a long time without trial.

“Many were never seen again,” Mausi Segun, Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) researcher for Nigeria, told Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN).

Both Boko Haram’s attacks and the military’s tactics have hemmed in civilians, and vigilance groups have emerged to fight the insurgents and cooperate with the security forces.

Not addressing causes
But deploying forces alone without a wider strategy to tackle the causes of the militancy will only perpetuate the insurgency, say analysts.

“Brute force and military crackdown against insurgents will not work,” said Michael Olufemi Sodipo, founder of the Kano-based Peace Initiative Network. “Intelligence-driven operations will be the key. The quest for a lasting solution to the crisis must begin with an understanding of the causes and the ideological motivations for youth participation in [the] violent radical campaign.

“Violent responses may temporarily quell the revolt, but it will more likely than not just produce variants of the group,” Sodipo explained.

Boko Haram came to prominence in the early 2000s, advocating the implementation of Islamic law in northern Nigeria. The group was motivated by grievances over the perceived marginalisation of their northern homeland, corruption among the ruling class and an ideology that sees Western lifestyles as sinful.

As its influence grew and its ranks swelled, it became a local security threat. Some observers also point to a political fall-out between its founder, Mohammed Yusuf, and local authorities as a trigger for the police crackdown.

Since Yusuf’s killing by security forces in 2009, Boko Haram has grown more violent. The group is suspected of having links with Al-Qaeda-inspired movements such as the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and its attacks have grown more sophisticated, evolving from machetes, clubs and handguns to bombs.

In September 2013, it carried out the worst attack in years, killing more than 140 people in a single ambush in Borno State. Dozens of armed gunmen blocked a highway and slaughtered civilians. The group also claimed responsibility for the abduction of foreigners in neighbouring Cameroon.

A heavy police clampdown in 2009 brought about a brief lull in Boko Haram’s activities until December 2010, when current leader, Abubakar Shekau, returned and unleashed a spate of attacks.

The group’s assaults on police stations, army bases and other government sites are often seen as revenge for Yusuf’s death. But the movement – an appellation that has been questioned due to doubts over Boko Haram’s cohesiveness – has also become cover for criminal activities.

Peace bids
Attempts to peacefully end the insurgency have failed.

After a year of “back channel” negotiations, President Jonathan said in late 2012 that the talks were not making progress. “There is no face, so you don’t have anybody to discuss with,” he said of Boko Haram.

Following talks in 2011 with former President Olusegun Obasanjo, Boko Haram demanded, as conditions for a ceasefire, an end to the arrest and killing of its members, payment of compensation to families of sect members killed by security forces and prosecution of policemen responsible for the death of Yusuf. The demands were never met.

“Brute force and military crackdown against insurgents will not work. Intelligence-driven operations will be the key”

“As much as the government is fighting, the dialogue option is still very necessary. No peace can take place without [talking to Shekau], but I’ve tried on two occasions, and it wasn’t the Boko Haram members that failed me,” said Shehu Sani, director of Civil Rights Congress, a Nigerian rights group. Sani and Obasanjo both tried to initiate talks between the government and Boko Haram.

“The government made noise about its interest in dialogue, but how is it possible to dialogue when you have a state of emergency that made it clear that any insurgents who violates it will be arrested or be shot? The same government that speaks about dialogue has also outlawed the group, saying that any communication with the group is a crime. How do you dialogue with a group whose leader has a bounty on his head?” said Sani to IRIN.

Radical Islam has deep historical roots in northern Nigeria, and violence has been all too common. Political manipulation of the south-north division since colonial times, ethnic and religious divisions, as well as rampant corruption have all played a part in stoking extremist violence in the predominantly Muslim north. And in the south, Nigeria was forced to reach an amnesty deal with the rebels in the oil-producing Niger Delta.

Responding to extremist violence will require stronger governance, tackling corruption and addressing socio-economic grievances, analysts say.

“The idea that Nigeria, failing its people on so many fronts and with too many looters posing as leaders, could achieve all this seems almost fanciful.

The far more likely scenario is continued deterioration on all fronts and a disastrous military-first approach to the insurgency that only drives more young men to grab a gun or build a bomb,” Andrew Stroehlein wrote in a commentary in 2012, when he was director of communications at

International Crisis Group think-tank.
“Countering violent extremism requires a full spectrum of initiatives, including apprehending extremist leaders, sustained development investments in marginalised communities, promotion of values of inclusivity to mitigate the spread of extremist ideology, and the rehabilitation of radicalised former fighters,” Sodipo told IRIN.

Since the 2009 upsurge in violence, thousands of northern Nigerians have been forced to flee their homes, some to neighbouring countries. Basic services such as healthcare and education have been disrupted.

With elections coming up in 2015, HRW’s Mausi warned that the vigilance groups that have sprung up in response to the insurgency may end up worsening security if they are not brought under control.

“They are a ready-made army, and it would only worsen the situation for them and the rest of the people if the militant group [Boko Haram] sees that they are cooperating with politicians.”


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