9th June, 2013
The dusty, remote spot in Nigeria’s far northeast where the military says insurgents operated a major camp is now little more than burnt-out cars, strewn trash and unanswered questions.
More than three weeks into a military offensive seeking to end a years-long insurgency by Islamist extremist group Boko Haram, Nigeria has claimed important successes, but the truth is difficult to determine.
It has denied killing civilians, though it declines to provide numbers or details on casualties.
Soldiers say Boko Haram members have “scattered” in areas where the army has pushed them out, but they cannot say where, only that “hundreds” have been arrested.
Thousands of residents have fled into neighbouring Niger and Cameroon, and some allege soldiers indiscriminately killed civilians in raids before the offensive officially began. The military denies this.
Mobile phone lines have been cut in much of the region since the start of the offensive on May 15 and visiting remote areas independently is difficult if not impossible.
Journalists recently visited the deserted Boko Haram “camp” soldiers say they chased insurgents away from near the village of Kirenowa as part of a tightly orchestrated military tour.
The tour wound into a patch of the semi-desert northeast, where acacia trees and shrubs dot the dry, flat landscape along with occasional villages of brick houses with thatch roofs.
Military officials have at times provided conflicting details of operations, including involving the camp near Kirenowa, raising further questions over which version if any is correct.
In 2009, Nigeria launched a brutal offensive against Boko Haram that killed some 800 people and forced the group underground for more than a year — but they returned with even deadlier attacks.
This time the security operation “involved not just the military but the security agencies of the country,” Brigadier General Chris Olukolade, a defence spokesman, told reporters on Thursday.
“The network this time is perfect, I mean near perfect, in the sense that the operation was planned to ensure their bases were dislocated — not just dislocated but completely wiped out.”
Some say the offensive may have obliterated the possibility of legitimate dialogue, while others have expressed doubts that a military operation could lead to lasting peace.
“The entire Chinese army cannot solve this problem,” said Bulama Mali Gubio, spokesman for an influential elders’ forum in Nigeria’s Borno state, Boko Haram’s original home base.
Boko Haram’s insurgency has been under way since 2009, but a series of particularly violent events preceded President Goodluck Jonathan’s state of emergency declaration on May 14 in the volatile northeast of Africa’s most populous nation.
In April, the military faced accusations of major abuses after nearly 200 people were left dead in the town of Baga, with residents alleging soldiers shot civilians and set fire to much of the community.
The Red Cross put the death toll at 187, but the military insisted that only 37 people died in the fighting, while saying insurgents caused the blazes.
A May 7 attack in Bama saw insurgents disguised in military uniforms break into a prison and attack several government buildings, leaving 55 people dead. Nigerian authorities later said they freed three women and six children abducted by Boko Haram during the attack.
However, there were also accusations of military abuses in Bama. Ali Elhadji, a 56-year-old who fled back to his parents’ home village in Cameroon, Gance, said Boko Haram had spread violence in Bama and soldiers brutally retaliated.
He said soldiers arrived several weeks before the May 15 start of the offensive and killed indiscriminately.
“They killed all those who appeared young and who they crossed in the streets,” he told AFP recently in Gance. “They killed many innocents.”
There is no question that the insurgency mainly in Nigeria’s deeply impoverished north has been brutal.
Boko Haram is blamed for hundreds of deaths through suicide attacks, targeted killings, car bombings and other means.
In declaring the state of emergency, the president said the group had taken over pockets of territory in the remote northeast.
Soldiers said the extremists even raised their own flags in the Marte area.
At the same time, the military’s response to the insurgency over the last several years has come under heavy criticism, with widespread accusations of extra-judicial killings, arbitrary arrests and unlawful detentions.
Diplomats and analysts have long said a military solution alone is unlikely to resolve the problem, stressing that conditions in the severely underdeveloped north must be addressed.
The government in Africa’s largest oil producer has more recently sought to portray itself as offering a carrot-and-stick approach, carrying out the offensive but also forming a panel to look at possibilities for offering an amnesty to insurgents.
It recently released 58 women and children who had been held in connection with the insurgency. Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau had demanded that the government release the wives and children of its members.
But with the offensive grinding on and its details unclear, it is difficult to know what effect if any such moves have had.
“Is it dialogue with the people you are pursuing with troops, with armoured tanks and with fighter jets?” Gubio said. “Are these the people you are trying to give amnesty to?”