ABUJA, Nigeria — The Nigerian army’s fresh battle with Islamist militants in the country’s restive north will rely not only on superior firepower, but also on gaining the trust of civilians who trust neither side, analysts here say.
The Nigerian authorities last week announced a sweeping military offensive against fighters with the militant group Boko Haram, a homegrown organization that claims ties to Al Qaeda and had recently seized parts of northeastern Nigeria.
The operation — which includes both air raids and thousands of ground troops — is ongoing. And according to Nigeria’s military, government soldiers have arrested more than 200 Boko Haram fighters and retaken at least five districts in Borno State, the group's original home and one of three states currently under emergency rule. The military also says it has seized military-grade weaponry from the militants’ arms caches.
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GlobalPost could not independently verify military statements because roads to the impacted areas are blocked, and communications networks are intermittent. Army officials say militants are fleeing toward neighboring Niger and Chad, but are being stopped at the border.
But while Boko Haram — which wants to establish Sharia law in Nigeria — is a fierce militant group with the deaths of thousands of civilians on its hands, Nigeria’s army has also come under fire for its own brutality.
Such a murky understanding of just who is behind the ongoing and often deadly violence, in a remote and unreachable area some 560 miles from the capital, is leaving civilian residents in the north caught in the middle of an intensifying conflict.
Many are terrified of the militants. But they often fear security forces, too.
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“If [the military is] going in there using brute force, they are not going to get positive results,” retired army captain and security consultant, Cpt. Aliyu Umar, told GlobalPost. The trust of the people is essential, he said, in order to gather the intelligence needed to distinguish un-uniformed militants from civilians.
“Those who are involved are not actually alien to the communities they operate in,” he added. “They carry out these attacks and melt back into the civil population.”
Boko Haram began its violent operations in 2009, seven years after the group was founded.
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Fighting broke out between security forces and Boko Haram that year and nearly 1,000 people were killed, including the founder of the group, Mohammed Yusuf. Since then, Boko Haram has killed thousands in attacks on churches, schools, government buildings, markets, and other public places.
Its fighters were reported to have increased their insurgent activities in three Nigerian states in the north — including Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa — in recent months, including an attack on the Borno fishing town of Baga that locals say killed hundreds of people, mostly civilians.
The day before Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan announced the current northern offensive, Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, appeared in a video message distributed to reporters.
He claimed responsibility for recent attacks, including the Baga attack and another in the town of Bama. But Shekau said although Boko Haram launched a small attack in Baga, it was the military that did most of the killing of civilians.
In a May 1 report, New York-based Human Rights Watch says that Nigerian government soldiers — in retaliation for the Boko Haram activity in Baga — burned down more than 2,000 homes. Both HRW and London-based Amnesty International have accused Nigerian security forces of abuses — including extrajudicial killings, the burning of homes, and prolonged detention.
Such harsh tactics, Nigerian analysts say, boost Boko Haram’s strength by alienating local populations.
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“It is true that we have kidnapped a number of women and children,” Shekau said in the same video. The screen then split in two, showing what appeared to be a separate video of 12 women and children that Shekau said were being held hostage, though the video could not be authenticated.
“And we will continue to do so in retaliation to the abduction of our women and children — girls, even babies — by government officials and security agents,” he said.
Not everyone is sympathetic to the militants, however — and see the military tactics as necessary to retake control of the country.
“Soldiers are not trained to distribute lollipops,” veteran Nigerian journalist Wole Olaoye said. “In a war like that, you can’t rule out excesses. What we can insist on is that the excesses be punished.”
Both government and traditional community leaders in the north have long demanded the government hold peace talks with the group. Last month, President Jonathan formed a committee to inquire into the possibility of offering an amnesty to fighters who laid down their weapons.
But with a new operation under way — and with little scrutiny — the prospect of peace talks seems far-off.
Shekau rejected the offer, and residents of the capital seemed wary.
“If they give Boko Haram amnesty,” said Prince Shaaba, a realtor in Abuja, “another set [of militants] will come up.”
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