Attacks carried out in northeastern Nigeria over the past week are the latest in an upsurge of violence that has hit the region as elections for a new president and parliament approach next month. Amnesty International has indicated that one of Boko Haram’s attacks is the “deadliest massacre” in the history of the militant group’s insurgency while the United Nations reported on Tuesday that the latest wave of attacks have sent nearly 12,000 people fleeing into Chad in a matter of days. This increase in tempo of attacks is likely linked with the upcoming presidential elections, which are due to be held on 14 February.
New Wave of Violence
The week of violence began on 3 January, when Boko Haram militants attacked the town of Baga, in northern Borno state, in what is now believed to be the worst atrocity carried out in the militant group’s six-year campaign.
On the ground sources have reported that Nigerian soldiers stationed in Baga fled over the weekend as the militant group overran the town and the nearby Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) army base. The violence in the town continued during the week, with militants killing dozens of people and burning down homes. Local officials reported that Boko Haram insurgents began shooting indiscriminately and burning buildings in Baga late on Tuesday in raids that targeted the civilian population and continued into Wednesday. TV footage depicted scores of civilians on the outskirts of Baga as they waited to catch buses out of the town. Many were seen carrying the few possessions they were able to salvage, including bags of clothing and rolled up mattresses. On Friday, Nigerian forces, backed by air strikes, began fighting for control of the town. A statement released by Mike Omeri, the government spokesman on the insurgency, disclosed “security forces have responded rapidly, and have deployed significant military assets and conducted airstrikes against militant targets.”
The town of Baga is of strategic importance to Boko Haram, as it is believed to be the last town in northern Borno still under the federal government’s control. The militant group, which has seized more than two-dozen towns in northeastern Nigeria in the past six months, now control all three of Borno’s borders with Cameroon, Chad and Niger. As a result, Boko Haram is now in a better position to launch attacks both in Nigeria, including targeting the key city of Maiduguri where thousands of civilians have fled to in recent months in a bid to escape the on going violence, as well as across the borders. Into Cameroon and Niger. It also means that the group has likely secured important supply routes for weapons and will now be able to enlarge its recruitment base in order to replenish its ranks. The capture of Baga also proves that the Nigerian government is far from being on top of the situation, and is a further defeat for the country’s military.
With Baga now under Boko Haram’s control, the militant group has effectively encircled Borno state capital Maiduguri, where Boko Haram was founded and which has been repeatedly attacks. It is highly likely that the militant group’s fighters will now begin to move inwards, targeting the remaining towns and villages in this encircled area before they attack Maiduguri, and southwards, in a bid to capture any remaining towns. According to Nigerian lawmaker Maina Maaji Lawan, Boko Haram now controls 70% of Borno state.
Worst Violence in Six-Year Insurgency
As news emerged that Nigerian forces were attempting to regain control of Baga, on Friday, Amnesty International suggested that last week’s attack on the northeastern town was the “deadliest massacre” in the Islamist militant group’s history.
On the grounds sources have reported that hundreds of bodies remain strewn in the bush in the area surrounding the town. District head Baba Abba Hassan has disclosed that most of the victims are children, women and elderly people who were not able to run fast enough when the militants drove into Baga, firing rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles on the town’s residents.
A statement released by Amnesty International has indicated that there are reports that the town was razed and that as many as 2,000 people were killed. Daniel Eyre, Nigeria research for Amnesty International, stated that if these reports are true, “this marks a disturbing and bloody escalation of Boko Haram’s on going onslaught.” Nigerian officials however have released contradicting numbers. On Monday, the defence ministry disclosed that the number of people who lost their lives in an assault by Boko Haram militants on the town of Baga last week was no more than 150, adding that this figure included “many of the terrorists” who had attacked the town in Borno state and who had faced resistance by troops. The ministry has dismissed estimates that as many as 2,000 people may have been killed, stating that they were “exaggerated.” Reports by local civilians however have indicated that thousands were killed in this week’s bloodshed, with one local stating that the number may be as high as 3,000. Nigerian officials have in the past been accused of underestimating casualty figures in a bid to downplay the growing threat from Boko haram.
The previous bloodiest day in the uprising involved soldiers gunning down unarmed detainees who were freed in a 14 March 2014 attack on the Giwa military barracks in Maiduguri city. At the time, officials at Amnesty International disclosed that satellite imagery indicated that more than 600 people were killed that day. According to the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations, in the last year alone, more than 10,000 people have been killed with more than a million people displaced inside Nigeria and hundreds of thousands fleeing across the country’s borders into Chad, Cameroon in Nigeria.
The number and scale of attacks has sharply risen over the past year, ever since the Nigerian government imposed emergency rule on the three worst hit states. Despite being heavily criticized for his failure to stem the on going fighting, President Goodluck Jonathan, who is seeing re-election, has blamed opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari for Nigeria’s ill-equipped army and their inability to tackle the growing threat. President Goodluck Jonathan, who condemned the attack on a French satirical magazine in Paris, has yet to comment on the latest violence at home.
Increase Use of Female Suicide Bombers
This past week’s attacks in northeastern Nigeria also included several attacks that involved suicide bombers.
At least four people were killed and twenty-one injured in the city of Potiskum on Sunday when two female suicide bombers, one of them aged about fifteen, blew themselves up in a crowded market. According to a security source involved in the investigation, “one of the bombers looked 23 and the other 15,” adding “the first bomber – the 23 year old – detonated her explosives just outside the entrance of the market, where volunteers were sweeping people going inside the market with metal detectors…the second bomber was terrified by the explosion and she tried to dash across the road but she also exploded.” Witnesses have reported that the second blast went off as people were fleeing the first blast. The market was filled with traders and shoppers from all over Yobe state and beyond at the time of the attack. The blasts, which took place at the Kasuwar Jagwal mobile phone market in the commercial capital of Yobe State, come just a day after a young girl, thought to be aged 10, killed nineteen people in Maiduguri in neighbouring Borno State. In a separate attack on Saturday, two people were killed when a car exploded outside a police station in Potiskum.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for these latest attacks however suspicion is likely to fall on Boko Haram, which has increasingly been using female suicide bombers to carry out deadly attacks.
Since June 2014, Boko Haram has increasingly been using young girls and women to carry out deadly suicide attacks across the northeastern region of Nigeria. In July, there were four suicide bombings carried out by females in one week in Kano. During the same month, a 10-year-old girl was found in Katsina state wearing a suicide vest. In December 2014, Zahra’u Babangida, 13, was arrested with explosives strapped to her body. She later told journalists that her parents had volunteered her to take part in a suicide attack in the city of Kano.
While older women may willingly become human bombs, as they either share the Islamists’ radical ideology or are out to avenge the death of loved ones who were killed by the Nigerian military, the young ages of some of the bombers, such as the girl in Maiduguri, suggests that coercion is likely being used by the militant group. A civilian vigilante who witnessed the Maiduguri bombing has stated that he doubts if the young bomber “…actually knew what was strapped to her body.” Meanwhile another eyewitness has disclosed that it appeared that the bomb was remote-controlled, which is inline with other testimony from other attacks across the wider north region of Nigeria.