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July 14, 2011

Nigerian Military Says Some Civilian Leaders Sponsoring Islamic Militants

by Scott Stearns

Nigeria's military says civilian leaders who want troops to leave the embattled city of Maiduguri are sponsoring Islamic militants responsible for a series of attacks there. Those civilian leaders accuse soldiers of committing human rights abuses in their fight against the Muslim sect.

A group called the Committee of Borno Elders and Leaders of Thought says all federal troops should leave the city of  Maiduguri, located in the northeast Nigerian state of Borno,  because they are escalating the crisis there by engaging in human rights abuses.

A joint military task force took charge of Maiduguri nearly one month ago amidst a series of bombings and ambushes by Muslim fundamentalists who are fighting for an independent nation in northern Nigeria that would be ruled by Islamic law.

The joint task force commander of operations Colonel Victor Ebhaleme says civilian leaders accusing soldiers of looting and rape are “sponsors, sympathizers and members” of the Boko Haram sect “aimed at discrediting the task force so as to have a field day to operate.”

The task force says it is lamentable that some civilians are only being heard from now when they were silent while the sect was “killing and maiming at will” before soldiers arrived.

In response, the elders' group issued a written statement saying there is incontrovertible evidence that soldiers have engaged in “ungodly acts unbecoming of their role as those who are supposed to safeguard the lives, property, and dignity of Nigerians.”

If all troops are not withdrawn immediately, the elders say they must conclude that the federal government intends to destroy Maiduguri.

The local chapter of the Nigerian Bar Association echoed that call, saying nothing could be worse than “cases of genocide and extra-judicial killings” carried out by the military.

University of Abuja sociology professor Abubakar Umar Kari says Nigerian authorities have long believed that the best way to deal with insurgents is through force.

“Boko Haram has been able to thrive because of a long-entrenched culture of impunity in Nigeria," said Kari. "Government officials have always got away with all sorts of atrocities with little or nothing being done to them.”

President Goodluck Jonathan is under mounting pressure to restore security in the north. But Boko Haram has so far refused his offer to open talks.

The stalemate has led not only to divisions between military and civilian leaders in Borno but has also set off political infighting among those competing to influence President Jonathan.

Following talks with the president this week, a former military ruler of the federal capital territory accused Borno State politicians of creating Boko Haram.

Retired Lieutenant General Jeremiah Useni recalled a trip to Maiduguri with then-governor Ali Madu Sheriff where they passed legions of young men selling petroleum along the road.

“I said why do you allow them to sell petrol on a major street like this? And he said, 'No, no, no, no leave them. They are very useful during election," said Useni.

Useni says young men organized for political thuggery were the genesis of Boko Haram.

Following separate talks with President Jonathan, former governor Sheriff said Useni is mistaken about the origin of fundamentalism in northern Nigeria.

“The leader of the Boko Haram was arrested and was prosecuted in Abuja before I even think of going to become a governor in Borno state," said  Sheriff. "So people make comments on what they don't know.”

Boko Haram spokesman Abu Zaid says attacks against soldiers in Maiduguri will continue. In a written statement, he said remarks by military chiefs that Boko Haram are cowards for engaging in hit-and-run attacks is “an affront that will not be ignored.”