An attack by suspected Islamist militants on a Nigerian air force base indicates the Boko Haram group retains its military threat even after a seven-month offensive by government forces.
“It is a big deal, it shows the capability of Boko Haram is growing,” Murtala Touray, senior Africa analyst at IHS Country Risk in London, said today by phone. “For Boko Haram to plan this attack, it shows they are a force to be reckoned with, they can take on the Nigerian army.”
The pre-dawn raid took place yesterday in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, about 860 kilometers (535 miles) northeast of the capital, Abuja. Two air force personnel were wounded, 24 attackers were killed, and three military aircraft and two helicopters were damaged, military spokesman Chris Olukolade said in a statement e-mailed to journalists yesterday.
Boko Haram, which means “Western education is a sin” in the Hausa language, has carried out gun and bomb attacks for the past four years in a campaign to impose Islamic law in Africa’s biggest oil producer. President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in May in Borno and two other northeastern states where Boko Haram is most active.
The Borno state government imposed a curfew on Maiduguri after the attack. Flights into and out of the city’s airport have resumed, Olukolade said.
“It seems as if the military is on the back foot, rather than Boko Haram,” Touray said. “It’s a big embarrassment for the Nigerian security forces. It shows their intelligence-gathering capability is very poor.”
Nigeria’s main political opposition bloc, the All Progressives Congress, called for an investigation into how the attackers were able to storm the military facility.
The country needs a new strategy to combat Boko Haram, which “seems to retain the capacity to carry out such a massive attack in a major city, despite the successes which the military said it had recorded against it since the declaration of a state of emergency,” party spokesman Lai Mohammed said in an e-mailed statement.
The U.S. named the militant group a Foreign Terrorist Organization on Nov. 13, a move analysts said may strengthen the Nigerian authorities’ determination to crush Boko Haram, as well as herald greater international involvement in the conflict.
“It will make regional and international bodies sit up and pay attention, and show that the reports from the Nigerian army about killing Boko Haram members and destroying their capabilities, much of it does not actually reflect the reality on the ground,” Touray said.
The Nigerian military frequently reports that it has killed dozens of insurgents in skirmishes and raids.
Boko Haram has used children as young as 12 and abducted and raped women, while the government has not accounted for hundreds of men and boys detained, New York-based Human Rights Watch said on Nov. 29.