Monday, October 1, 2018

ABUJA, Nigeria | Baba Goni, 35, trekked about nine miles to escape from Boko Haram fighters who were laying siege to Gudumbali, a city in rural northeastern Nigeria.

Led by Abu-Mosad Al-Barnawi, the leader of the Islamic State’s branch in West Africa, the militants used gun trucks to storm the town where a military base is located, engaging Nigerian soldiers in a fierce battle for several hours. An air force helicopter gunship helped repel the fighters — part of a movement that the government had promised would be defeated long ago.

“It was raining bullets when I ran out of my home around 3 a.m.,” said Mr. Goni, a farmer. “I have yet to trace the whereabouts of my wife and two children.”

Mr. Goni was among hundreds of residents of Gudumbali who lives in a displaced persons camp in Maiduguri around 75 to the south in the wake of renewed violence, clear evidence that the radical Islamist movement that has pledged allegiance to Islamic State remains a potent force in the field.

Boko Haram fighters in recent months have resumed attacks on military bases and communities in northeastern Nigeria and parts of Cameroon, casting fresh doubts on Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s claims of “decimating” the insurgents.

Boko Haram militants have killed more than 14,000 since they rose up against Nigeria’s central government in 2011, with deaths reaching more than 5,000 when the violence was most intense in 2015, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, an international academic group that monitor violence reports in conflicts.

Nigerians continue to express deep concerns over the recent resurgence of Boko Haram attacks. Many said the government’s claims of defeating the insurgents have badly damaged the president’s credibility.

“The federal government has been arguing that it has conquered the terrorists,” said Professor Sule Bello, head of the Kaduna-based African Research and Development Agency. “But these demonstrations have confirmed that Boko Haram are still around. The terrorists seem to lie low and then come back and commit a lot of atrocities against the civilian population.”

Even among staunch supporters of the Buhari-led administration, many question officials who say Boko Haram has been subdued.

“The resurgence of the insurgents is troubling and tragic,” said Sen. Shehu Sani, a lawmaker representing Kaduna Central in northwestern Nigeria who hails from Mr. Buhari’s political party, the All Progressives Congress. “Our gallant security forces must double up efforts to contain and combat them. We must be consistently vigilant and perish the thought of instant victory.”

Premature victory

A former military dictator who ruled Nigeria in the 1980s, Mr. Buhari launched a major offensive against the Boko Haram in 2015, shortly after he won office in a democratic election. Reclaiming territory and killing militant commanders, the government appeared to have the terror group down for the count.

But attacks have been rising in recent months. Often, they signal the group’s dedication to remaining in the fight.

Boko Haram recently attacked the Nigerian army’s 145 Brigade in Damasak in the country’s remote northeast, with the aim of overrunning their military base and carting away arms for future operations.

The resurgence in attacks could also signal a seasonal search for food. The Boko Haram fighters, driven away from their traditional enclaves and forced into hiding on the Mandara Mountains bordering Nigeria and Cameroon, must embark on raids for food especially during this time of the rainy season when their old food stocks are running low.

“Every time they are hungry, they invade towns and villages where they could get food,” said Jack Vincent, a Maiduguri resident.

But with Nigeria facing new presidential elections in February, the Nigerian military continues to deny that the insurgents are still active in the Northeast.

“There’s no attack against the military, and our troops are intact,” said Brig. Gen. Texas Chukwu, director of army public relations. “We didn’t lose any troops.”

Information Minister Lai Mohammed also insisted that the insurgents have been defeated. “We promised to fight insecurity,” he said. “Despite what anybody says, we have decimated Boko Haram.”

Nigerians who continue to face frequent attacks from the insurgents have a different view.

“To a very large extent, the insurgents are very active,” said Mr. Vincent. “Those of us living here, we know it. In a bid to douse tension, the government in her wisdom uses propaganda to ensure news around these things won’t get outside. That’s the truth. Now we see the insurgents are back, doing what they do.”

Analyst Hilary Matfess of Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project said such the clear and present danger from Boko Haram could threaten Mr. Buhari’s political future.

“With the February 2019 presidential elections looming, many will be assessing how well the president was able to implement his policy agenda and quell the violence in the country’s northeast,” she wrote. “Boko Haram remains a threat to residents of the northeast — and Buhari’s reputation as a hard-nosed military man.”

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