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Nigerian Military Offensive Risks Alienating Residents

Nigeria Risks Alienating Residents in Military Offensive
Militant attacks and the government’s emphasis on military power to counter them are forcing thousands of people to flee their homes in the remote northeast, where the nation’s statistics agency says almost 70 percent of the people live on less than a dollar a day. Photographer: Quentin Leboucher/AFP via Getty Images

Labaran Manu shut his grocery shop and fled the northeastern Nigerian town of Mallam Fatori with his two wives and five children after President Goodluck Jonathan sent troops last month to drive Islamist militants from the area.

Now Manu, 32, living with relatives in the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, won’t return to his home on the border with Niger for fear of being caught between the Islamist militant group known as Boko Haram and government troops.

“Most of us can’t move freely anymore,” Manu said in an interview on May 30 in Maiduguri, about 718 kilometers (446 miles) north-east of Abuja, the capital. “My family had to leave for fear of being killed.”

Militant attacks and the government’s emphasis on military power to counter them are forcing thousands of people to flee their homes in the remote northeast, where the nation’s statistics agency says almost 70 percent of the people live on less than a dollar a day. That risks alienating inhabitants of the region and making it easier for Boko Haram to gain recruits.

Besides the military response, the government needs to prioritize jobs and economic development as part of its counterinsurgency strategy in the region, according to Peter Pham, director of Washington-based Atlantic Council’s Africa Center and Roddy Barclay, West Africa analyst at Control Risks, a London-based business consulting group.

Innocent Civilians

There are allegations also of the military killing innocent civilians in its hunt for Islamists. As many as 228 people were killed and more than 2,000 houses were burned down in Baga, near Lake Chad, after security forces responded to a militant attack on April 16, according to Maina Ma’aji Lawan, a senator representing the area. Lawmakers and the National Human Rights Commission have said they’ll investigate the Baga incident.

“A military-only policy that kills innocent civilians, forces others to become refugees -- that’s not going to legitimize Boko Haram or other militant groups, but it creates a climate on which they will feed,” Pham said in a phone interview on June 6. “In the long term it’s certainly counterproductive.”

The West African nation is roughly split between a largely Christian south and a mainly Muslim north. The violence has been confined to the north and Abuja, far from the south where the oilfields of Africa’s largest oil producer and Lagos, the commercial capital, are located. About 55.1 percent of the south’s residents live on less than a dollar a day, according to the statistics office.

Tougher Stance

Oil accounts for about 80 percent of government revenue and more than 90 percent of foreign income, according to the central bank. The Nigerian Stock Exchange All-Share Index has gained 32 percent this year, the second-best performer in Africa, shrugging off the violence in the north. The naira has weakened 3.1 percent against the dollar in the period and was trading at 161.80 as of 9:48 a.m. in Lagos.

Boko Haram started its violent campaign in the area in a bid to impose Shariah law in Africa’s most populous country following the death in 2009 of its leader, Mohammed Yusuf. Yusuf died in police custody after he was arrested during clashes between militants and security forces. In May, Jonathan took a tougher stance and declared emergency rule in Borno and two other northeastern states, saying Boko Haram was taking over parts of the area.

The United Nations says more than 8,000 people displaced in the region have fled into neighboring Niger, Cameroon and Chad.

Burned Down

When the Boko Haram fighters arrived in Mallam Fatori in November, they raised their black, red and green flags over the town and went house to house killing anyone suspected of being linked to the government, Manu said. “Some of my neighbors who work with the local government authority were killed,” he said.

The military has denied it targeted civilians, saying Boko Haram fighters sometimes wear fake military uniforms to impersonate troops. Six civilians, a soldier and 30 insurgents were killed, and 30 houses were burned down, the army said.

While Manu welcomes the declaration of emergency rule, he says people are “also afraid of the excesses of soldiers.”

“They always shoot indiscriminately whenever there is an attack by Boko Haram members,” he said. This has resulted in civilian deaths on the road to Maiduguri on which he traveled often to fetch rice, beans, tinned goods and soap for his shop, he said.

Past Experience

Without cooperation with neighboring Niger, Chad and Cameroon, the militants can cross borders without being noticed.

“It’s going to be like the proverbial balloon: you squeeze here, the air goes somewhere else,” said Pham.

“The military operation will likely cause the militants to become scattered across the territory and indeed beyond the territory,” said Barclay.

Past experience shows that after every battle won against the militants, the “handful that survived came back even stronger,” said Pham. Boko Haram’s capabilities were strengthened following the 2009 government crackdown and may be undergo a similar change after the current military campaign, he said.

Musa Maina, a 39-year-old farmer in the town of Banki on the border with Cameroon, said the sense of isolation has intensified since the government cut off mobile-phone communication under the emergency. The government hasn’t provided basic services such as roads, water or health centers and to make calls “we have been using Cameroonian telecommunications services,” he said.

With his family’s life and routines disrupted by the violence, Manu’s wish is for a quick return to peace.

“My children are no longer in school. Feeding is now a major problem,” he said. “I’m only living with my relatives doing nothing until the military operation subsides.”

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