Chibisi Ohakah, Abuja
From all indications, the Boko Haram terrorists appear to have stepped up their insurgency activities despite the steps taken so far by President Muhammadu Buhari to actualize his campaign promise of bringing it to an end in the country.
The president has moved the army command headquarters to Maidugiri in the North East, and has held a number of security meetings with the governments of Chad, Cameroon and Niger, who share boundaries with Nigeria and has committed $100 million to battle logistics, but observers believe that a few more steps his government is equally taking is capable of putting all the gains into danger.
Whereas it may be relatively too early to pass judgment on President Buhari’s ability to check insurgency, indeed the strikes from insurgents are on the increase since he assumed office. The insurgents have obviously changed tactics; they have adopted guerilla warfare, use of women and school age girls for suicide bombers, and preference for soft targets, yet it does not seem President Buhari recognizes these.
The worry over the increasing strikes by Boko Haram insurgents is heightened by the statement from the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) that it has commenced the gradual shutting down of Internally Displaced Persons’ (IDP) camps scattered in the northern parts of the country.
In Adamawa, for instance, the number of IDP camps has been reduced from 11 to six. NEMA records show that there are currently over 22 IDP camps in Nigeria,
Speaking in Abuja, last week, the director general of NEMA, Alhaji Mohammed Sani-Sidi, said the IDPs are being allowed to return home because of what he described as “the huge success being realized in the war against insurgency….. and also the mounting expression of willingness to return home by the displaced persons.”
The agency puts the number of IDPs in Nigeria at over 1.4 million. Of the figure, NEMA says about 99% of them are victims of insurgency in the North East, and majority of them are from Borno State.
NEMA’s decision to dismantle the camps is being viewed with concern given the noticeable rising Boko Haram strikes, which suggest that the insurgency is still very much active despite the so called huge success being realized by the military.
The U.N. Children’s Fund reported on May 26 that the number of suicide attacks in Nigeria, (attributable to the Boko Haram) jumped to 27 in the first five months of this year compared to 26 for all of last year.
Boko Haram is being blamed for the deaths of over 15,000 innocent people, including women and children. Outside the IDPs inside the camps, there are about 1.5 million said to have been driven from their homes, some across the borders.
It would appear that Buhari made the early trips to Chad and Niger to avoid early setbacks from Boko Haram and needed the neighbours’ support, but the spate of bombings through his first week in office highlighted the severity of the challenge. And the bombings have not abated thereafter.
A new video released by the group – its first for several months and first under the banner of the ‘Islamic State in West Africa’ – insisted the rebels were still to be reckoned with.
A day after the president was sworn into office Boko Haram struck in a number of locations in Maidugiri, killing 26 persons. A suicide bomb blast at a mosque killed at least 18 people, hours after rocket-propelled grenades exploded into homes in the city, reports said. More than a dozen people were wounded in the attack
The assault on Maiduguri came hours after Boko Haram terrorists bombed a wedding venue in Tashan-Alede, a farming village 270 kilometres from Maiduguri. Witnesses said a second blast hit the site while people were trying to rescue victims of the first explosion.
Seven people were killed and dozens were wounded in the twin blasts.
Boko Haram also recorded another attack on residents of Maiduguri on June 2. Reports said the fighters used rocket-propelled grenades in the attack but were unable to advance beyond the city limits.
Later, a suicide bomber attacked a cattle market in Maiduguri. Initial reports said up to 20 people died in the explosion.
Shortly after the multiple attacks in Borno State, the World Food Programme (WFP) issued a statement, alerting that Boko Haram has created food crisis. According to the U.N. food agency, there is an impending acute food shortage for people in Nigeria and the surrounding region who are fleeing Islamic Boko Haram militants.
WFP said nearly half million people are facing food crisis in Nigeria and bordering countries. It said in Niger and Cameroon, malnutrition rate has surpassed the 15% emergency threshold, with some areas near the Nigerian border having malnutrition rate as high as 35%.
WFP believes that Boko Haram militants have forced more than 200,000 people into neighbouring Niger, Cameroon and Chad, and has also caused growing numbers of internally displaced people, with 100,000 in Cameroon alone.
WFP spokeswoman Adel Sarkozi said the food shortage is affecting the entire region. “This has become a regional crisis. It’s affecting not only Nigeria but the neighbouring countries with people fleeing across the border,” she said.
“Those who are suffering the most are, unfortunately, the children. In Cameroon, for example, we can see the malnutrition rates going very high – up to 35% in some of the border areas. WFP is doing everything it can. We are helping refugees and the people displaced within the countries. But we need more support,” Sarkozi added.
The world food body said it is aiming to provide food to nearly 400,000 people each month and is appealing for more than $40 million through the end of the year. It says in the past two months, it was only able to provide food to about half the people it was trying to assist.
Until recently, the Adamawa town of Yola had been seen as a relative safe haven compared with its other North East neighbours, with no really confirmed Islamist cells or attacks since the uprising started.
With explosives strapped to their bodies, the bombers entered the Jimeta Main Market after sundown and “pretended to be fighting”, said police spokesman Othman Abubakar.
The staged fight between the two men attracted the attention of people nearby to see what was happening, when they detonated their explosives, police said.
The coordinator for the National Emergency Management Agency in Yola, Sa’ad Bello, gave casualty figures of 31 dead and 38 injured.
On June 12, while the rest of Nigerians, especially from among the activists stock, reminisced on the botched democratic election believed to have been won by Chief Moshood Abiola, reports filtered in that Boko Haram had killed 37 in Borno State.
Members of the popular civilian vigilante forces in the state reported that the Boko Haram militia had burnt six villages and killed 37 people near the insurgents’ stronghold in Sambisa forest.
The villages, all in Borno State, were Koshifa, Matangle, Buraltuma, Darmanti, Almeri and Burmari. Eyewitness reports said the victims were mainly farmers who had returned to their villages following assurances given by the Nigerian soldiers who claimed they had cleared the areas occupied by Boko Haram earlier on.
Less than a week after the June 12 strikes, security agents said a large sack of home-made bombs discovered at Boko Haram Camp exploded and killed 63 in Munguno town.
The explosives were found by civilian self-defence fighters who carried the bag filled with metal objects to the nearby town of Monguno.
It was reported that a curious crowd had gathered to inspect the bag, which made the casualty figure to be very high when the explosion took place.
The Associated Press said at least 97 people were killed in suicide bombings in North East Nigeria since May 30, and 113 in the past month. The highest toll from a single bombing was 29 who died in twin suicide bombings on June 4 in the main market at Yola, Adamawa State.
On June 22, two girls blew themselves up near a crowded mosque in Borno, killing about 30 people, witnesses said. It was reported that one female teenager detonated an explosive as she approached the mosque crowded with people from the nearby Baga road fish market.
The second teen appeared to run away before getting blown up further away, killing only herself, an eyewitness said. A civilian defence fighter, Sama Ila Abu, said he counted at least 30 corpses as he helped collect the dead.
There are suggestions that Boko Haram may actually be using the hundreds of women, and possibly the Chibok school girls in their custody, as female suicide bombers.
A military bomb disposal expert said that most bombs carried by girls and women have remote detonation devices, meaning the carrier cannot control the explosion.
As the death toll from Boko Haram killings rise every day, President Muhammadu Buhari, a fortnight ago ordered the removal of all military road blocks from the highways. But Nigerians see the removal of soldiers from the roads as a frightening complement to the dismantling of the IDPs.
They say they are not impressed with the ease with which the president passes the impression that insurgency is abating when indeed it is a rising debacle.
A spokesman for the civilian fighters in Borno State, Abbas Gava, said the deaths being recorded recently through suicide bombing are very tragic. According to him, it is easier to identify a Boko Haram troop than a singular operative/suicide bomber who would appear harmless in appearance.
“This also further heightens our fears and the need for a lot of sweeping to be done by the explosives ordinance department before people are allowed to go back to their liberated homes,” he said.
As the trend increased shortly before the change of guard of governance in Nigeria, the UNICEF issued a statement on May 25 raising global attention to the development, it noted that the Boko Haram had resorted to using female suicide bombers to attack public places such as markets and parks.
“But in the past 18 months, the practice has taken an especially alarming turn with the increased use of women and children carrying out the deadly attacks,” it said.
The agency said as an evidence of a rising trend, it recorded 27 suicide attacks by Boko Haram through mid-May of this year; while 26 suicide attacks were reported for all of last year.
UNICEF child protection specialist, Laurent Dutordoir, said women and children reportedly were used as suicide bombers in at least three-fourths of these horrific incidents. “Sometimes they are aware” of a bombing mission, sometimes not, he said.
“As for the profile of the child suicide bombers, it is not necessarily children who were abducted,” Dutordoir continued. “It also includes children who seemingly were displaced, separated from their families and lacking basic protection, which rendered them vulnerable to exploitation, meaning … use by armed groups.”
UNICEF estimated the number of unaccompanied and separated children in North Eastern Nigeria could be as high as 10,000. Dutordoir said women and girls are increasingly being used as suicide bombers because, for cultural reasons, it is easier for them to slip through security than is the case with men and boys.
Since last July, girls between the ages of 7 and 17 have been involved in nine suicide incidents, he said.
UNICEF said it fears the increasing use of children as suicide bombers could cast them as potential threats rather than as victims. It said this could harden hearts against all children associated with Boko Haram and hamper their rehabilitation and eventual reintegration into communities.
Military forces spokesman, Major General Olukolade, said on May Day that the military rescued approximately 700 women and children from the militants during an offensive to rout them from the Sambisa forest.
He said 275 of those freed were taken to a refugee camp and were later transferred to a military facility, for more trauma counseling.
While Nigeria seems to be swallowed with the euphoria of merely sweeping through Sambisa forest, and therefrom dismantle IDP camps and military road blocks, neighbouring countries are upbeat in their own actions, believing there is no resting with Boko Haram lurking around.
For instance, Niger authorities announced in May this year that in four months they arrested over 600 persons with Boko Haram links. Addressing the country’s parliament, security minister, Hassoumi Massoumi, said Niger has detained and charged 643 people since February for their links to Boko Haram.
It would be a surprise if any Nigerian has any such singular information about the efforts the security forces have made in the fight against insurgency.
The Niger government also deployed 3,000 soldiers to a joint regional force formed with Chad, Cameroon and Nigeria in order to quash the Boko Haram insurgency.
The reports from the neighbouring nation at this point in the history of the fight against Boko Haram is not about dismantling military road blocks or IDP camps, but that of sleeper cells and declaration of state of emergencies in affected areas.
“If this measure had not been taken, we could have had an uprising in the very interior of Diffa,” Reuters further quoted the minister speaking to parliament last Tuesday. Those arrested and detained have been charged with acts of terrorism and criminal conspiracy, he said.
Diffa had come under heavy attack in February when Boko Haram carried out attacks in neighbouring countries. Nigerien lawmakers also voted on Tuesday to extend the state of emergency in Diffa by three months.
Unconfirmed reports said the government of Niger has banned use of Muslim hijab in an effort to curb the ease of using women in hijab for suicide bombings.
Chibisi Ohakah, Abuja