5th June, 2013
Nigeria’s military on Wednesday disclosed details of its offensive against Boko Haram militants, describing a series of events that saw insurgents take control of a remote area before being pushed out by soldiers.
Military officials also displayed weapons allegedly seized from Islamist extremist group Boko Haram, including anti-aircraft guns capable of being mounted on pickup trucks, grenade launchers and machine guns.
The disclosures were made to journalists during a military-guided tour of parts of northeastern Nigeria, where the government launched a sweeping offensive on May 15. The military’s claims could not be verified independently.
The carefully orchestrated visit to various sites offered the first outside glimpse of some of what the military claims its ongoing offensive has accomplished in Africa’s most populous nation and largest oil producer.
Nigeria’s military has come under major pressure over Boko Haram’s four-year insurgency, including accusations of abuses such as extra-judicial killings, arbitrary arrests and unlawful detentions.
It has denied any abuses have occurred in connection with the offensive and claimed the insurgents are now on the run. It says the offensive will last as long as needed to bring an end to the insurgency.
However, authorities have cut mobile phone service in much of the region as part of the offensive and many sites are impossible to visit independently, making it difficult to verify the military’s account.
Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau in a recent video refuted the military’s claims of success in the offensive, saying soldiers had turned and ran in battle. The military has dismissed his comments as propaganda.
“I was given three different tasks before I came here: to occupy Marte, to destroy all activities of Boko Haram and to … bring order back,” Lieutenant Colonel Gabriel Olufemi Olorunyomi said in the remote, sparsely populated district of Marte.
“The first and second have been achieved. We are on the third one. So presently we are on peace-building.”
The offensive involves three northeastern states where a state of emergency was declared on May 14 — Borno, Yobe and Adamawa. The sites shown to journalists on Wednesday were in Borno, the original home base of Boko Haram.
Journalists were shown one of the alleged camps where Boko Haram had operated from, burnt-out cars, clothes and empty food containers littering the dusty grounds of the area near the border with Chad and on the edge of the Sahara.
Military officials said soldiers flooded the area on May 16 with the help of air power and fought the Islamists at the camp and a nearby location, causing them to flee. They declined to say how many were killed or arrested in the process.
According to the military, Boko Haram members burnt parts of the camp themselves before fleeing.
“They put up a lot of resistance,” said Lieutenant Colonel Danladi Hassan. “For now, we were not able to count the casualties they left. We were in a dogfight.”
Village heads in Kirenowa, a tiny community next to the camp, said during a presentation overseen by the military and attended by several hundred residents that they had been forced to flee after Boko Haram infiltrated the area but now have been allowed to return.
In New Marte village and nearby areas, journalists were shown a burnt-out church, a badly damaged local government headquarters and a looted and damaged hospital, among others — all the work of Boko Haram, according to the military.
Olorunyomi said the Islamists had even hoisted their own flags in New Marte, though he was unable to provide details on what those flags looked like.
According to him, the Islamists have now been successfully pushed out of the area, though he could not say where they had gone. He also would not provide arrest or casualty figures.
Boko Haram has claimed to be fighting for the creation of an Islamic state in the country roughly divided between a mainly Muslim north and predominately Christian south.
The group however is believed to have various factions with sometimes competing aims.
Boko Haram members have trained with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in northern Mali and possibly cooperated through other means.
The United States this week set a $7 million dollar reward for the capture of Shekau, the alleged Boko Haram leader.
Long criticised over its heavy-handed military approach to resolving the crisis, Nigeria last week announced the release of 58 women and children detained in connection with the insurgency.
President Goodluck Jonathan has also appointed a committee to look into ways of offering amnesty to elements of the group.
Some activists in Nigeria’s north have dismissed those moves as empty gestures, questioning whether those released will simply be replaced with new detainees while doubting the government’s commitment to dialogue.