News / Africa

Nigeria's 'War on Terror' Wins Tentative Support

Women walk in a street in a residential area in Maiduguri, Borno State May 19, 2013, an area where President Goodluck Jonathan has declared a state of emergency.
Women walk in a street in a residential area in Maiduguri, Borno State May 19, 2013, an area where President Goodluck Jonathan has declared a state of emergency.
Reuters
Nuradin Mohammed used to resent and fear the troops who swept past his fish stall in this northeast Nigerian city on the trail of Islamist insurgents Boko Haram. Now, for the first time, he thinks they may be on his side.
 
“We are pleased the president has finally recognized our peril and we pray his plan works,” Mohammed said, frying fish by the roadside as a crowd of young children looked on hungrily and trucks packed with troops rumbled past.
 
President Goodluck Jonathan took a gamble when he launched a big offensive this month on Boko Haram's four-year-old attempt to establish an Islamic state in mainly Muslim northern Nigeria.
 
The crackdown risks stoking, rather than quashing the rebellion, but has so far met with a surprising degree of support in a region that has long accused the oil-rich Christian south of neglect.
 
“We felt let down and ignored. We are afraid soldiers will come bullying the public, which makes people want to join the Boko Haram, but we hope this time is different,” Mohammed said.
 
Only a few months ago, Jonathan was telling foreign leaders that Boko Haram was a small problem that would be over soon.
 
Nigerian soldiers are seen patrolling a town in Borno state, April 30, 2013.Nigerian soldiers are seen patrolling a town in Borno state, April 30, 2013.
x
Nigerian soldiers are seen patrolling a town in Borno state, April 30, 2013.
Nigerian soldiers are seen patrolling a town in Borno state, April 30, 2013.
In declaring an emergency on May 14 in Borno, Yobe and Adawmawa states and ordering thousands of troops and air strikes on suspected Islamist camps, he said they were “terrorists” whose “declaration of war” could not go unanswered.
 
Civilians like Mohammed appear to have had enough of being caught in the crossfire of a rebellion that has killed thousands in Africa's No. 1 oil producer and provoked fears of a descent into chaos in one of the continent's most dynamic economies.
 
Even usually critical northern governors and elders have been cautiously supportive of Christian southerner Jonathan's new firm tactics, which include the offer of an amnesty to any militants who willingly surrender.
 
“I now fully understand the strategy: show strength and be magnanimous at the same time,” previously critical northern opposition politician Alhaji Bashir Tofa told Reuters.
 
But it will take more than just firmness to win against a movement that has proved remarkably resilient under the leadership of Abubakar Shekau, a fiery militant who likes to make finger-waving Internet videos holding a Kalashnikov.
 
Ousted from Nigeria's city centers in an earlier crackdown last year, the Islamists, whose name in the Hausa language means “Western education is sinful” withdrew to the remote semi-desert region of the northeast bordering with Chad, Cameroon and Niger.
 
In this isolated zone, they scared off local officials and took de facto control of at least 10 out of 27 council areas.
 
This recalled what happened in 2012 in Mali, where al-Qaida-allied Islamist rebels seized control of the Sahel country's Saharan north before taking several cities and towns. A French military offensive drove them back earlier this year.
 
In the past two months Boko Haram mounted some of their boldest attacks to date, including one that killed 55 people.
 
Hearts and minds
 
Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan (R) and his Tanzanian counterpart attend a sessions marking the 50th anniversary of the African Union in Addis Ababa, May 25, 2013.Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan (R) and his Tanzanian counterpart attend a sessions marking the 50th anniversary of the African Union in Addis Ababa, May 25, 2013.
x
Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan (R) and his Tanzanian counterpart attend a sessions marking the 50th anniversary of the African Union in Addis Ababa, May 25, 2013.
Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan (R) and his Tanzanian counterpart attend a sessions marking the 50th anniversary of the African Union in Addis Ababa, May 25, 2013.
Jonathan's administration knows that just sending in more troops will never totally defeat a foe that can hide among the civilian population, even if that population has been put off by Boko Haram attacks on churches, universities and markets.
 
“In some ways youths had more in common with Boko Haram than soldiers and wealthy politicians,” said Borno public servant Ali Shuwa. Behind him, scrawny goats chew on a rubbish pile.
 
“But I think people are tired of the fighting,” he added.
 
As with the “surge” of extra U.S. soldiers that former President George Bush ordered into Iraq in 2007 to prevent the country disintegrating into ethnic and sectarian bloodshed, experts say Nigeria's military needs a change of tactics that will motivate the population to actively cooperate with it.
 
“The major focus should be on securing the local population. It is popular legitimacy that will provide the intelligence necessary to fight insurgents and terrorists,” said Kole Shettima, a Nigerian pro-democracy activist.
 
Recognizing this, Jonathan agreed to free some detained Boko Haram suspects this week, including all women and children, one of Boko Haram's top demands. This is a sign he is willing to take steps towards reconciliation with moderate elements.
 
It reinforced the message that a panel he set up to try to establish a dialog with Boko Haram is sincere.
 
“This is the most concerted effort yet... They've hit it with a big stick and then dangled a carrot in front of them,” said Peter Sharwood-Smith, Nigeria head of security firm Drum Cussac. “They now realize the huge task in front of them.”
 
A poster advertising for the search of Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau is pasted on a wall in Baga village on the outskirts of Maiduguri, May 13, 2013.A poster advertising for the search of Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau is pasted on a wall in Baga village on the outskirts of Maiduguri, May 13, 2013.
x
A poster advertising for the search of Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau is pasted on a wall in Baga village on the outskirts of Maiduguri, May 13, 2013.
A poster advertising for the search of Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau is pasted on a wall in Baga village on the outskirts of Maiduguri, May 13, 2013.
Maiduguri, the once thriving hub of an ancient Islamic trading route, has been decimated by the conflict. Soldiers hunch behind sandbag bunkers on streets strewn with rubble from bomb blasts.
 
Traders hang carpets and piles of sandals hopefully outside corrugated-iron roofed shacks, while young boys peddle oranges and watermelons from wooden carts. But there are few buyers.
 
Boko Haram has infiltrated so deeply here that some parents don't know their children are members. Civilians don't want to turn against insurgents because informants are often killed.
 
“It could be him or her watching us,” said Ali, a teenage boy selling jerry cans of fuel, pointing out onto the street. “People have been killed just on a rumor of informing.”
 
It was in Maiduguri in 2002 that a cleric called Mohammed Yusuf founded a radical Islamist movement initially tagged 'Nigeria's Taliban', but later nicknamed 'Boko Haram' because of its virulent opposition to Western influences.
 
A military crackdown against an uprising by the group in 2009 killed 800 people. This included Yusuf, who died in police custody, a catalyst for years of reprisals on security forces.
 
Tough military task
 
Jonathan says he will clamp down on military excesses after reports of human rights abuses by soldiers in the northeast, although rights groups and foreign diplomats think these may continue going unpunished given the secrecy of the operation.
 
Nigerian soldiers are seen on the outskirts of Maiduguri in Borno state, May 13, 2013.Nigerian soldiers are seen on the outskirts of Maiduguri in Borno state, May 13, 2013.
x
Nigerian soldiers are seen on the outskirts of Maiduguri in Borno state, May 13, 2013.
Nigerian soldiers are seen on the outskirts of Maiduguri in Borno state, May 13, 2013.
Rights activists say soldiers carry out extra-judicial killings and torture suspects never face trial.
 
“We welcome that Jonathan has finally recognized publicly the abuses but these words must be turned into actions for his operation to have legitimacy,” a western diplomat in Abuja said.
 
Security sources say Jonathan's army faces a tough task in defeating resilient Islamist fighters, who have shown their ability to re-arm and counter-attack and who know the remote southern fringe of the Sahara better than most soldiers.
 
A military source in Maiduguri told Reuters they had found the first days of the latest offensive harder than expected against “an enemy willing to hide anywhere and do anything”.
 
Boko Haram is not one cohesive group and new independent splinter-operations are emerging, making negotiations difficult.
 
The longer this goes one, the costlier it will be, and not only in human terms. Nigeria spent 700 billion naira ($4.4 bln) on security in the four months to April, the central bank said.
 
Porous borders with Chad and Niger have been used to transport weapons from Libyan and Malian conflict zones and Western governments are concerned about Boko Haram's increasing ties with al Qaeda linked groups in the Sahel - a fact which could draw Nigeria's neighbors further into the conflict.
 
“Even the U.S. government couldn't contain guerrilla fighters in Afghanistan and Iraq, so do you think we can?” Sakuria Mohammed, a Borno legislator told Reuters in Maiduguri, where his mother was kidnapped by Boko Haram this month.
 
“The fighting is a symptom and therefore the military will not solve this. We must create jobs, rebuild this once great region and give youths a better option than Boko Haram.”

You May Like

Video Positive Messaging Helps Revamp Ethiopia's Image

In country once connected with war, poverty, famine, headlines now focus on fast-growing economy, diplomatic reputation More

Russian Activist Thinks Kremlin Ordered Nemtsov's Death

Alexei Navalny says comments of Russian liberals who think government wasn't involved are 'nonsense.' More

Video Land Disputes Rise Amid Uganda Oil Boom

Investors appear to be cashing in by selling parcels of land to multiple buyers More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Positive Messaging Transforms Ethiopia's Imagei
X
Marthe van der Wolf
March 03, 2015 9:03 PM
Ethiopia was once known for famine and droughts. Now, headlines more often point to its fast-growing economy and its emergence as a regional peacemaker. How has Addis Ababa changed the narrative? VOA's Marthe van der Wolf reports.
Video

Video Positive Messaging Transforms Ethiopia's Image

Ethiopia was once known for famine and droughts. Now, headlines more often point to its fast-growing economy and its emergence as a regional peacemaker. How has Addis Ababa changed the narrative? VOA's Marthe van der Wolf reports.
Video

Video Cyber War Rages Between Iran, US

A newly published report indicates Iran and the United States have increased their cyber attacks on each other, even as their top diplomats are working toward an agreement to guarantee Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon and to free Iran from international sanctions. The development is part of a growing global trend. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video Answers Elude Families of MH370 Passengers

For the families on board Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, an airline official’s statement nearly one year ago that the plane had lost contact with air traffic control at 2:40 AM is the only thing that remains confirmed. William Ide reports.
Video

Video Land Disputes Arise Amid Uganda Oil Boom

Ugandan police say there has been a sharp increase in land disputes, with 10 new cases being reported each day. The claims come amid an oil boom as investors appear to be cashing in by selling parcels of land to multiple buyers. Meanwhile, the people who have been living on the land for decades are chased away, sometimes with a heavy hand. VOA's Serginho Roosblad reports.
Video

Video In Russia, Many Doubt Opposition Leader's Killer Will Be Found

The funeral has been held in Moscow for Boris Nemtsov, the opposition leader who was assassinated late Friday just meters from the Kremlin. Nemtsov joins a growing list of outspoken critics of Russia under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin who are believed to have been murdered for their work. VOA’s Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
Video

Video Simulated Astronauts Get Taste of Mars, in Hawaii

For generations, people have dreamed of traveling to Mars to explore Earth's closest planetary neighbor. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports that while space agencies like NASA are planning manned missions to the planet, some volunteers in Hawaii are learning how humans will cope with months in isolation on a Mars base.
Video

Video Destruction of Iraq Artifacts Shocks Archaeologists

The city of Mosul was once one of the most culturally rich and religiously diverse cities in Iraq. That tradition is under attack by members of the Islamic State who have made Mosul their capital city. The Mosul Museum is the latest target of the group’s campaign of terror and destruction, and is of grave concern to archaeologists around the world. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video Smartphones May Help in Diagnosing HIV

Diagnosing infections such as HIV requires expensive clinical tests, making the procedure too costly for many poor patients or those living in remote areas. But a new technology called lab-on-a-chip may make the tests more accessible to many. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Refugees Complain of Harassment in Pakistan

Afghan officials have expressed concern over reports of a crackdown on Afghan refugees in Pakistan following the Peshawar school attack in December. Reports of mass arrests and police harassment coupled with fear of an uncertain future are making life difficult for a population that fled its homeland to escape war. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports from Islamabad.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Prepare to Defend Mariupol

Despite the ongoing ceasefire in Ukraine, soldiers in the city of Mariupol fear that pro-Russian separatists may be getting ready to attack. The separatists must take or encircle the city if they wish to gain land access to Crimea, which was annexed by Russia early last year. But Ukrainian forces, many of them volunteers, say they are determined to defend it. Patrick Wells reports from Mariupol.
Video

Video Moscow Restaurants Suffer in Bad Economy, Look for Opportunity

As low oil prices and Western sanctions force Russia's economy into recession, thousands of Moscow restaurants are expected to close their doors. Restaurant owners face rents tied to foreign currency, while rising food prices mean Russians are spending less when they dine out. One entrepreneur in Moscow has started a dinner kit delivery service for those who want to cook at home to save money but not skimp on quality. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Presidential Hopefuls Battle for Conservative Hearts and Minds

One after another, presumptive Republican presidential contenders auditioned for conservative support this week at the Conservative Political Action Conference held outside Washington. The rhetoric was tough as a large field of potential candidates tried to woo conservative support with red-meat attacks on President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress. VOA Political Columnist Jim Malone takes a look.
Video

Video Southern US Cities Preserve Civil Rights Heritage to Boost Tourism

There has been a surge of interest in the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, thanks in part to the Hollywood motion picture "Selma." Five decades later, communities in the South are embracing the dark chapters of their past with hopes of luring tourism dollars. VOA's Chris Simkins reports.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More