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April 21, 2014

Is Nigeria Losing War Against Boko Haram?

by Anne Look

The Nigerian militant sect Boko Haram says it carried out the deadly bombing in the capital, Abuja, last week that killed at least 71 people.  Nigerians' confidence in the government and the military's ability to deal with Boko Haram has reached a new low.

In his new video, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau waved a stick and addressed Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan.

"You are just too small," he said. "You are just too small for us."

Shekau taunted Nigerian authorities who have repeatedly pledged to put down the now five-year-old insurgency in a matter of months.

The Nyanya bus station bombing was Boko Haram's first major attack in the capital in two years, something regional analysts say show its capabilities remain intact despite the almost year-long military offensive against the rebels.  Most of Boko Haram's attacks take place in the far northeast.

Analysts also say the size and sophistication of the blast suggest the militants have strengthened their connections abroad.

Visiting the bomb site last week, Jonathan tried to downplay the seriousness of the threat.  The Boko Haram problem is "temporary," he said.  

But Nigerians in the most violence-prone areas of the north tell VOA they aren't reassured.

"Honestly, my brother, we are not safe in this country.  If Abuja could experience that, then any other part of the state, it's just a child's play to them," said one.

Three northeastern states have been under a state of emergency for almost a year, but the violence has intensified.

"Nigerians are afraid.  Nigerians are scared.  The security [forces] say they are in control but from the look of things, I doubt if they are," said another person.

Amnesty International says 1,500 people have been killed this year in the conflict between Boko Haram insurgents and Nigerian security forces, more than half of them civilians.

Analysts say the military's heavy-handed tactics since the insurgency began in 2009 have alienated the population.

Some people living in the northeast say soldiers are overwhelmed and outgunned, others say that security forces are just dysfunctional.

"Truly I have the confidence in them but there are factors that have to be addressed.  The cooperation in between the forces.  There are a lot of lapses," said one Nigerian.

Others are growing more cynical.

"They should go back to the drawing board," one person said. "They should look inwards, those who are behind it, because Nigerians begin to believe that some army officers have hands in these dirty things that are going on in the northeast."

The military's credibility took a hit last week when Defense Headquarters had to retract its claim that all but eight of the more than 100 schoolgirls kidnapped in Borno state had been freed.

Most of the girls are still missing after armed men raided their school last Tuesday.  At least 32 girls have escaped on their own.

The defense spokesman said the false claim was an honest mistake but that hasn't stopped the criticism.

"They just by the end of the week discover that it was all a lie, so tell me how do we trust our security agency," asked a Nigerian.

A local newspaper columnist called the communications debacle, along with the ease with which the girls appear to have been abducted, a "smoking gun," and proof that authorities are not being honest about the situation in the northeast.  

The government and security forces say they are doing what they can but with each new attack, frustration mounts.

Kareem Haruna contributed reporting from Maiduguri, Nigeria, Ardo Hazzad contributed reporting from Bauchi, Nigeria, Ibrahima Ku contributed reporting from Kaduna, Nigeria.