Recent assaults by the dreaded Boko Haram sect in Yobe and Borno states reopen fears that the country hides in its enclave, elements that are capable of outwitting the national security outfit
Friday is a holy day for Muslims all over the world. But members of Boko Haram, the militant sect that claimed to be fighting the cause of Islam, chose the day to unleash an unprecedented violence on the residents of Damaturu and Potiskum in Yobe State.
The group stormed the state capital at about 5:00 p.m. on November 4 in a convoy of vehicles loaded with ammunition, including bombs, hand grenades and sophisticated guns. Residents told the magazine that the assault appeared well-coordinated as the attackers either knew where their targets were located or had local guides. Anybody in military or paramilitary uniform or vehicle became a ready target in the line of the operation of the sect members.
A police officer who did not wish to reveal his name for “fear of the unknown” told the magazine last Wednesday how he narrowly escaped the devastating attack on the state headquarters of the Nigeria Police Force. He said he left the office less than five minutes before members of the sect surrounded the station. “I was on my way to the barracks when a colleague called me to say they were under heavy gun fire,” he told the magazine. “I left more than 43 officers and other people in the building when it was attacked, and none of them was able to escape because the station was surrounded.”
When the magazine visited the police headquarters last Wednesday, it looked as if it was the target of an aerial bombardment. The roof, doors and windows were blown off while office items were burnt to ashes. Mobile policemen guarding the area did not allow the taking of photographs. No fewer than 10 police patrol vehicles and other cars were burnt. No fewer than two other police stations were also attacked. There were reports that the sect members may have escaped scrutiny from security forces and unsuspecting members of the public because they had people who wore police uniforms in their midst. For instance, a survivor narrated how one Sani Dankano, a block maker in Damaturu, was killed when he showed his Police Community Relations identity card. His car was stopped at a checkpoint along Gashua Road by the invaders, some of whom were in police uniforms. Dankano, apparently fooled by the men in police uniform, assumed that his identity card would grant him a safe passage. Instead the card, which perhaps was seen as proof that the businessman was in league with enemies of the sect members, became a passport to the great beyond.
Military patrol vehicles were also attacked along the major roads in the state capital and Potiskum. An eyewitness narrated how the gunmen along the Gujba Road – a major road in the state capital – killed some military men on patrol. He said the soldiers were at the Presidential Lodge of the Government House, Damaturu, when one of their drivers rushed in to report the invasion.
The soldiers took their weapons and went out to confront the gunmen. Rather than stopping the gunmen, they ran into what was apparently a superior firepower. “The soldiers didn’t come back that night. We later saw their vehicle at the roundabout in the morning of the next day. They were burnt inside the vehicle,” he told the magazine. The attackers also threw bombs and killed people inside the Federal Secretariat building, Nigerian Customs Service office and the offices of the Nigerian Immigration Service in Damaturu.
Churches were not spared by the firestorm of the attackers. Yobe State chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN, said the attackers destroyed 11 churches. All the churches are located in New Jerusalem, so called because it is the only part of the state capital with the largest concentration of churches. A pastor of the Cherubim and Seraphim Church, who gave his name as Olabayo James, told the magazine that no fewer than 60 young members of the congregation were in choir practice when they started hearing loud explosions in the neighborhood. “We rushed outside to see what was happening and we saw people running helter-skelter. Neighbours told us to vacate the church because some people were throwing bombs. Just as we rushed outside, we heard the deafening explosion of bombs dropping on our church. All the young people in the church would have been killed if we hadn’t come out.”
The magazine was told that nobody was killed inside any of the churches. Some of the Christian groups in New Jerusalem said the attackers told them to come out of their churches before they threw explosives into the buildings. According to them, it was the first time churches in Damaturu would be attacked.
Betraying obvious features of synchronised raids, while the attack on Damaturu, which started on Friday evening, was said to have lasted till the early hours of Saturday, that of Potiskum, another major town in the state, about 108 kilometres from the state capital, took place simultaneously and in similar manner and targets. No fewer than 200 people, including civilians, police, military and paramilitary personnel were believed to have died in the attack.
A police officer that survived the onslaught told the magazine that members of the sect appeared to have good training in warfare and combat. This appears to give credence to the claim by leaders of the sect and security findings that some of its members had gone for training in some countries. For instance, the police source said many of the police officers killed died fighting, adding that the security personnel also killed many of the sect members. “But the sect members were well coordinated and they were picking their dead as they attack their targets.”
He was not far from the truth as the attack was obviously well coordinated. While the Yobe operation was being executed, another operation was carried out at the headquarters of the Joint Military Task Force in Maiduguri, Borno State. There, a bomb planted in a car driven by a suicide bomber sped into the area causing incalculable damages. A patrol vehicle of the JTF was also attacked with an explosive, and one soldier reportedly died as a result of the attack. But no other life was lost in the attack on the JTF headquarters, except that of the suicide bomber… Boko Haram immediately claimed responsibility for all the attacks. Abul Qaqa, a spokesman of the group, was quoted as saying the attacks was in retaliation for the killing of their members and “vulnerable civilians” by the JTF in Maiduguri. He said the group would continue to attack security personnel and government buildings until the military offensive against them is stopped.
But last Wednesday, police headquarters confirmed that the sect once again recorded the highest losses of 65 casualties in the Yobe bomb blasts. Yemi Ajayi, a chief superintendent of police, CSP, and deputy Force spokesman, gave a breakdown of the causalities as follows: 36 Boko Haram suspects, 11 policemen, two soldiers, two Nigeria security and civil defence corps operatives, one immigration staff, one FRSC officer, one customs staff and 11 civilians. He said the force had made some arrests but refused to say how many or who had been arrested.
The November 4 attacks caught many by surprise, including security agencies, which obviously did not seem to have had any intelligence about the attack. There had been a lull in the violence perpetrated by the sect and for nearly a month there was no report of any explosion or shooting in Borno State, the capital, which is the headquarters of the sect. Although, there had been shootings and killings in Gombe State before this.
The magazine gathered that the military offensive against the sect in Borno State had been successful and it was responsible for the relative calm in the state. The JTF, whose initial mandate was to ensure peace and the protection of lives and properties, had to review its mandate when its men became targets of Boko Haram. JTF patrol vehicles were targets of gun or bomb attacks by members of the sect who planted bombs along the roads and detonated them when military vehicles passed along.
At least 19 soldiers were killed in the height of the attacks on JTF in July when the sect dropped a bomb inside a military tent where soldiers were sleeping in Kaleri area of Maiduguri. Since then the JTF became more aggressive in restoring peace to Maiduguri. It issued a statement warning residents of the state that there would be repercussions if any community allowed Boko Haram to plant bombs in their area.
The JTF carried out its threat and anywhere a soldier was killed, either by gunmen or a bomb, it launched an operation in the area. It also embarked on a door-to-door search for weapons and members of the sect. Lots of weapons were confiscated in the process and many suspected members of the sect were arrested. The JTF also encouraged members of the sect to willingly surrender their arms before October 1 or face prosecution after arrest. The strategy gave the sect little breathing space and the town became too hot for them to operate.
But what made Maiduguri even hotter for the sect, the magazine was told, was the use of military patrol vehicles equipped to detect hidden bombs and other weapons within a radius of 50 metres. The vehicles are put on the roads in suspected Boko Haram hideouts in densely populated areas of the city and once bombs or weapons are detected, the military moved into the area to make arrests and seize weapons. The magazine was told that many leaders of the sect had been arrested in this way.
Many, afraid of military invasion of their residences, were said to have dumped their weapons along the roads and inside neighborhood incinerators. US Africom command and other world intelligence agencies are supporting Nigerian security agencies in the fight against terrorism on the request of the Nigerian government. This partnership has reduced the efficiency of the Boko Haram operations and is on the verge of pushing them out of Maiduguri.
The heat in Maiduguri may have become unbearable and the sect was looking elsewhere to export their brand of terror. Those who attacked Yobe were said to have entered the state from neighbouring Borno State. But residents still wonder how those who sacked Yobe were able to pass through the dozens of police and military checkpoints along the road to Damaturu without being detected.
Hassan Mohammed, a lieutenant-colonel and spokesman of the JTF, told the magazine that Borno had become too hot for the sect to operate, so they were going to other states to attack. He said because of the desert terrain in the northern parts of the country, especially northeast, it was easy for members of the sect to pass through the desert in order to avoid being detected along the road. Mohammed said the sect had been frustrated in Maiduguri and had resorted to suicide bombings to operate. He said all the four attacks carried out in Maiduguri on November 4 were suicide attacks. In July, Borno Elders had condemned the JTF’s strategy of attacking communities where military vehicles were attacked and called for the withdrawal of the military from the state.
But the state government opposed the call, arguing that there was no alternative to the military operation. Kashim Shettima, governor of the state, in a statewide broadcast, said those calling for the withdrawal of soldiers failed to suggest any realistic alternative. He said soldiers would stay until the restoration of peace to the state. Boko Haram activities have become so complex that leaders are divided on how best to handle the problem.
There were many other prominent Nigerians who share the concerns of the Borno Elders and argued that the crisis would not be solved through military operation. One of such people is Olusegun Obasanjo, former President, who said the military was not trained to fight invisible enemies.
Obasanjo, a retired general, should know. He also took a personal initiative to resolve the crisis last September when he flew to Maiduguri to meet with the family of Mohammed Yusuf, the late leader of Boko Haram who was killed by the police after his capture in 2009. Obasanjo was received by the family and he appeared to have had a deal. A list of demands was said to have been given to the former president who promised to pass it on to President Goodluck Jonathan. But shortly after the visit, Babakura Fugu, Obasanjo’s host, was killed, allegedly by a splinter group of the sect.
The setback notwithstanding, the magazine was reliably informed that Obasanjo, who is said to genuinely believe in a negotiated solution, was said to have passed his recommendations personally to the President. Obasanjo was said to have recommended, among others, payment of compensation to Yusuf’s family and the families of others killed extra-judicially, rebuilding of the sect’s mosque destroyed during the military operation in June 2009, and the immediate release of Boko Haram suspects who have not been charged to court.
The committee set up by Jonathan to look into the security challenges posed by Boko Haram in the country, which submitted its report in September, also recommended the option of dialogue and compensation for families of members of the sect killed extra-judicially. The committee, which was headed by Usman Galtimari, a former ambassador, also recommended rehabilitation for members of the group, but said it was contingent upon their renunciation of violence and surrender of arms. That is where the challenge lies. Aides of the President complain that elders who call for dialogue are always too reluctant to call the sect members to order. Thus the thinking among some of the security advisers is that unless the sect members demonstrate that they are ready for talks, the government will have to also make efforts to maintain law and order. So the presidency is said to be divided along the two postulations: military operation or negotiation. Currently the hawks are getting the ears of the President. That perhaps explains why the recommendations in the reports submitted by the Galtimari committee since last September and that of Obasanjo are yet to be adopted. “Those who have the ears of Jonathan now are those who favour a military solution, and the president has ignored the process started by Obasanjo,” a source close to the former President told the magazine last week.
But while government continues its military onslaught against the sect in Maiduguri, the violence is now spreading beyond Borno State. With the bloody attack in towns in Yobe and the threat to attack other places, including Abuja, the Federal Capital city, the group has succeeded in spreading fear across the country.
The Human Rights Watch said the group had killed 425 people since the beginning of this year and that the recent attacks on Yobe were a demonstration that the group had no regard for human life. Those killed this year include those affected in the attack on police headquarters in Abuja last June and United Nations House, also in Abuja, last August. Apart from Borno and Yobe, attacks have also been launched against security personnel in Bauchi. Nigerians, especially security agents and employees of the federal government, are now endangered as they have all become targets of attack by the sect.
During the attack on Damaturu, many civil servants were killed inside the Federal Secretariat building. Explosives were thrown inside the offices and many who escaped had to jump through the window or scale the fence. Eyewitnesses said some of the sect members wore police uniforms and mounted a roadblock along Gashua Road and would ask motorists or passersby to identify themselves. “If you were a security agent or a federal government employee, they would shoot you immediately,” a staff of the National Youth Service Corps, NYSC, in Damaturu told the magazine. That must have been the reason the NYSC directorate said corps members should stay away from Borno and Yobe.
Last Wednesday, members of the sect attacked the office of the Federal Road Safety Corps, FRSC, in Mainok, a town along Damaturu-Maiduguri road, killing an unspecified number of people. The police station in the town was also attacked by gunmen. The incident happened in the night.
The Boko Haram crisis and the violence in the North have had a negative effect on the image of the country. The resurgence of the attacks in Yobe not only alarmed Nigerians but also members of the international community who have strongly condemned the attacks. The European Union Commission described the attack as mindless and heinous and declared support for government effort at solving the problem. Henry Bellingham, United Kingdom’s Minister for Africa, in a statement also condemned the act that resulted in the death of “so many innocent people.”
Last Wednesday, the US relaxed the terror alert it issued to her citizens in Nigeria in the wake of the attacks on Yobe and Maiduguri. Her citizens had been warned to avoid the three biggest hotels in Abuja – Transcorp Hilton, Abuja Sheraton and Nicon Luxury – for being probable targets of Boko Haram bombings. A statement by the US Embassy in Nigeria said the situation is under control as “increased security checks at major hotels, government facilities and along major roadways... have improved the security environment to the general public.” However, the Embassy still advised “all US citizens to maintain a high level of vigilance and personal awareness.”
But despite the international outrage it generated, the violence was not on the agenda of the Federal Executive Council meeting chaired by President Jonathan. This was confirmed by Labaran Maku, minister of information, while briefing state house reporters after the meeting. According to him, it was not the subject of deliberation because the issue was being competently handled by appropriate security agencies. He said government had done and was doing so much to overcome the security challenges facing the country. Maku was specific that the government was not losing the fight against Boko Haram despite the recent setbacks.
The government may have to do more, at least to give confidence to the citizenry. The people wonder that up till now, the security forces are yet to apprehend Ibrahim Shekau, the new leader of the sect who is said to believe that armed struggle was the only way for the group to achieve its aim of imposing the Islamic system of government on some states in the North. Shekau, who was the second-in-command when Yusuf was leader of the group, is said to believe in taking up arms to fight the cause of the sect, and that Yusuf had been the restraining force until the military attacked the group in 2009, and the eventual death of Yusuf in police custody.
Shekau is still believed to be hiding in Maiduguri from where he commands the group’s military campaigns. Some analysts in the North believe that unless Shekau is captured, it may be difficult for the JTF to stop the group from further violence. Asked when Shekau would be arrested, the JTF spokesman said the question was like “asking me when I will get a shark from the river.” He said it was possible to get him now or any time in the future. Perhaps until then, the nation will continue to live in the shadow of Boko Haram.
Additional report by ANAYOCHUKWU AGBO