What is happening in the North East?

6th July 2017

The last Ei-del-Fitr celebrations passed on peacefully for most of the day across North-East Nigeria, with an enforced restriction on movement for vehicles and even animals until noon in Maiduguri, capital of Borno, and birthplace of Boko Haram. Residents, especially young children and young women went about dressed colourfully celebrating the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

However, at around 10:30pm on the night of Sunday June 25, the first of multiple explosions rang out, shattering the tenuous peace of the night. Rapid gunshots followed in what appeared to be an attack on two fronts on the University of Maiduguri. In the week of June 25-30, there were at least ten bombings within Maiduguri and its outskirts – Jere, Gwange, and others.

Suicide attacks and the occasional bombing in both Yobe and Adamawa have mostly gone unreported in the mainstream media. For example, there was a suicide bombing in Damaturu, Yobe on Thursday, 28 June. There were two at an IDP camp in Diffa in neighbouring Niger Republic on the morning of June 29. This was the first such attack in Niger since April 2016.

There were reports of multiple bombings in Molai district, 1km southwest of Maiduguri on the road to Damboa. The road itself was only reopened in early 2016 and is still littered with bullet shells and spent ammunition used by untrained insurgents on previous raids to Damboa. Passengers commuting between Maiduguri and Damboa have to travel among a lean military convoy of vehicles, with motorbike riders at the front and rear, and several trucks of soldiers escorting civilians. The convoys, which are operated once each day, congregate at the NNPC Mega Station, just before Molai in Maiduguri, and depart at 7am. There is also a convoy, once each day, in the opposite direction.

Roadblocks have been increased and reinforced across the North East as more displaced people return from Cameroon. In Madagali, Adamawa and Gwoza, Borno, areas within close proximity of Sambisa Forest, often seen as the headquarters of Boko Haram, the army has beefed up security. Only military vehicles as well as those of the United Nations and Non-Governmental Organisations are granted permission to move within the towns and surrounding villages which are perceived to be even more dangerous because of the possibility of marauding insurgents creeping under cover of dark to loot homes, and cart away food and clothing supplies. Mobile network communications have been cut off from these towns, save for high-end gadgets used by the army and the UN for communications. Electricity installations have been destroyed and telecom network signals fluctuate daily across many towns including Michika, Madagali and Mubi.

January has been the deadliest month of 2017 so far, with 76 people killed in twelve Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria that month. Sadly, June was the group’s most efficient as they 70 people were killed in seven attacks. A total of 43 attacks have happened in Nigeria as at the end of June 2017. The casualty figures from the attacks include Boko Haram members who were killed. The pattern of attacks, and the frequencies, suggest that the group is probing for weaknesses.

Although Boko Haram now lacks the capacity to hold territory, they are still a potent threat in as far as carrying out suicide bombings and attacks on isolated communities and rural areas are concerned. One factor that works in their favour is the vastness of Borno. At 70,000 sq.km, it is Nigeria’s second largest state in terms of landmass, and the population in the Central and Northern areas where Boko Haram still has a presence is sparse. The insurgency has driven many people to Maiduguri, further leaving the only other population centre in that area to be Bama. This makes other areas ripe for easy pickings by Boko Haram which hides either in the vast arid Sahel region or in the sprawling Sambisa forest, a Savannah shrubland that extends across the width of the state.

From a strategic point of view, the concentration of the population in Maiduguri and Bama, while providing safe havens that can be the focus of resources, also provides targets that Boko Haram can concentrate attacks on. It is clear that this is a path the insurgents are pursuing.

The Nigerian Army is stretched beyond its capacity to be able to man every inch of the state. The army’s operational tactics leave much to be desired as they appear to mostly be on the defensive from Boko Haram attacks rather than taking the fight to them.

There is an urgent need for a strengthening of the intelligence capacity of the security agencies to enable them nip attacks prior to execution. For this, we recommend capacity building for the police, and better cooperation with the CJTF. Special attention should be given to the University of Maiduguri for two reasons: one, an attack on the University is symbolic for Boko Haram in line with its opposition to anything Western , including modern education. Secondly, the University is situated on the edge of the city and is very vulnerable to attacks as it is unfenced in many areas extending into areas where Boko Haram seems to be able to move around freely.

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