Nige­ria’s Boko Haram bat­tle stalls as pop­u­la­tion starves

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Nige­ria’s mil­i­tary cam­paign against Boko Haram Is­lamists is in­creas­ingly bogged down as it con­fronts sui­cide at­tacks, loot­ing and in­dis­crim­i­nate slaugh­ter while the UN warns the af­fected re­gion faces the “largest cri­sis in Africa”. In north­ern Borno state, the epi­cen­tre of the in­sur­gency that has spread to three neigh­bor­ing coun­tries-Chad, Cameroon and NigerNige­ria’s army has un­leashed a bar­rage of air and land as­saults.

The counter-in­sur­gency has clawed back some ter­ri­tory, but Boko Haram has re­sponded by step­ping up guer­rilla tac­tics, am­bush­ing troops when it can and ter­ror­iz­ing civil­ians when it can­not. In late Novem­ber ma­jor gen­eral Leo Ir­bor hailed his men’s suc­cess in free­ing “more than 5,200 peo­ple” over a month. But the high num­ber freed merely high­lighted Boko Haram’s ca­pac­ity to cap­ture and hold vast, heav­ily pop­u­lated ar­eas.

Vil­lagers un­der siege are typ­i­cally forced to aban­don their crops, dev­as­tat­ing lo­cal food sup­plies. Those who are freed by the army are gen­er­ally trans­ported to camps where ba­sic sup­plies are also des­per­ately scarce. The United Na­tions es­ti­mates that 14 mil­lion peo­ple will need out­side help in 2017, par­tic­u­larly in Borno State, af­ter seven years of con­flict that has killed at least 20,000 peo­ple and left 2.6 mil­lion home­less.

‘Scorched-earth’

The scale of hu­man­i­tar­ian suf­fer­ing has be­come more ap­par­ent as troops re­cap­ture and dis­cover the “scorched-earth” con­di­tions of vil­lages that have fallen into the hands of Boko Haram. But lo­cal peo­ple com­plain that there are not enough se­cu­rity forces de­ployed to ef­fec­tively bat­tle the men­ace of Boko Haram.

The same day as Ir­bor hailed the lib­er­a­tion of the civil­ians, five peo­ple were killed in in­sur­gent raids on vil­lages near Chi­bok, the district that gained no­to­ri­ety for the Boko Haram kid­nap­ping of more than 200 school­girls in 2014. The Boko Haram raiders looted and burned houses, set fire to crops that were ready for har­vest­ing, and killed the lo­cals-even though the army had been alerted to the as­sault.

“We’ve heard there are 700 sol­diers to se­cure the zone bor­der­ing the Sam­bisa for­est that is the Boko Haram strong­hold”, said Ayuba Alam­son, a res­i­dent of Chi­bok. The for­est cov­ers an area of about 1,300 square kilo­me­ters. “We need an­other bat­tal­ion,” said Alam­son. Though Boko Haram has been weak­ened and ca­su­alty num­bers fol­low­ings its at­tacks are of­ten low, the fre­quency of their strikes “en­able it to keep up the pres­sure on se­cu­rity forces and force them to de­ploy”, said Omar Mah­mood, a re­searcher at the In­sti­tute for Se­cu­rity Stud­ies, stretch­ing them fur­ther.

‘Famine-like’

Troop num­bers are also be­ing pulled away to fight on an­other front, Nige­ria’s south where mil­i­tants have been sab­o­tag­ing oil pipe­lines and other in­stal­la­tions vi­tal to the coun­try’s ex­port earn­ings in a fierce dis­pute over lo­cal au­ton­omy and the dis­tri­bu­tion of petrodol­lars. And with ten­sions mount­ing be­tween Shi­ite and Sunni Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties in the coun­try’s north­west, au­thor­i­ties are strug­gling to guar­an­tee se­cu­rity for Nige­ria’s 180 mil­lion peo­ple.

The num­ber of killings in the north­east, which in­creases af­ter the end of the rainy sea­son each year, is a par­tic­u­lar cause for con­cern-es­pe­cially on the bor­der with Niger. Ter­ri­tory in Niger has be­come the strong­hold of Abu Musab Al-Bar­nawi, who was de­clared a lo­cal leader by the Is­lamic State group af­ter Boko Haram de­clared its al­le­giance to the ji­hadists. Anti-ter­ror­ist con­sul­tant Yan St-Pierre, di­rec­tor of the Modern Se­cu­rity Con­sult­ing Group, said that pres­sure on Is­lamic State ji­hadists in north­ern Libya has, per­versely, pushed its ac­tiv­i­ties fur­ther south, to coun­tries bor­der­ing Nige­ria.

As a re­sult, their “ef­fec­tive­ness for sup­ply­ing (Nige­rian ji­hadists) with weapons and lo­gis­tic ma­teriel has greatly im­proved over sev­eral weeks,” he told AFP. While IS and Boko Haram fight­ers bat­tle the Nige­rian army, hunger is spread­ing among both vil­lagers and the swelling ranks of dis­placed peo­ple in the rav­aged north­east. The UN has warned that 75,000 chil­dren in the re­gion are at risk of death within “a few months”.

What the World Food Pro­gram has called “famine-like” con­di­tions have prompted ex­perts to warn against seek­ing vic­tory over the ji­hadists at all costs. “The Nige­rian army, which has adopted a purely mil­i­tary strat­egy for seven years, needs to change its ap­proach if it wants to win this war,” said St-Pierre.

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