Islamists Target Nigerian Villages as Army Sweeps Cities

Facing a crackdown by Nigeria’s army in cities, Islamist militants are targeting villages in the northeast, killing about 160 people this year in Borno state and signaling there’s no respite in their five-year-old insurgency.

In one of the latest assaults, suspected members of the Boko Haram group killed 39 people on Feb. 11 when they attacked a police station, houses and mosques in Konduga county, about 38 kilometers (24 miles) southeast of the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, local authorities said. Last month, 85 people died in an attack on Kawuri village that destroyed 300 houses and shops.

“Boko Haram attacks have continued at a relentless pace and there are no signs at present that security conditions will improve in the near future,” said Ben Payton, senior Africa analyst at Bath, U.K.-based risk analysis company Maplecroft.

Since President Goodluck Jonathan imposed a state of emergency on Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states last May, the military has claimed to have knocked back Boko Haram, which is fighting to impose Shariah, or Islamic law, in Africa’s biggest oil producer. Boko Haram started its violent campaign after its leader, Mohammed Yusuf, died in police custody in July 2009.

Boko Haram has not carried out an attack on a high-profile metropolitan target since 2011, when it bombed the United Nations building and a church, both in Abuja, the capital.

Violence has eased too in Maiduguri, a city of about 1 million people that was the birthplace of Boko Haram, residents say.

‘Relative Peace’

“The state of emergency declaration has brought about relative peace to Maiduguri and neighboring communities, but all that is at the expense of vulnerable villages which now suffer frequent attacks from suspected Boko Haram members,” said Aisha Abububakar, a 42-year-old tailor in Maiduguri.

The U.S., which designated Boko Haram a "terrorist’’ organization in November, said that during the attack on Konduga the insurgents kidnapped young women from two schools in the area. The Nigerian government should ensure that those abducted during the raid “are safely returned to their families, and bring the perpetrators to justice as soon as possible,” the U.S. Embassy said today in a statement.

Campaign Issue

The security forces’ success or failure against Boko Haram may play a role in determining whether Jonathan will win another presidential term in elections next year should he decide to run in them.

Along with allegations of economic mismanagement, falling revenue from oil exports, and the lack of long-promised reforms in the oil industry, the failure of Jonathan’s government to quash Boko Haram’s rebellion is a prominent electoral theme.

“Jonathan’s national security credentials and performance, recently criticized by former President Olusegun Obasanjo, will be a major campaign issue,” Philippe de Pontet, Africa director at Eurasia Group, said in e-mailed comments.

The military claims to have killed at least 150 militants in three major pushes in Borno state since Dec. 20, including a Jan. 9 shootout in which 38 rebels died.

“You can kill 20, 30, 40 people but the country’s northern areas have not become more secure,” Sebastian Spio-Garbrah, chief Africa analyst at New York-based DaMina Advisors LLP, a frontier-market risk adviser, said in a phone interview.

Pursue Insurgents

Colonel Muhammad Dole, the military spokesman in Borno, said the army plans to press ahead with its strategy of chasing the militants in an effort to smash the insurgency.

Security forces have “intensified combat patrols on major roads and around vulnerable towns and villages,” Dole said in a telephone interview.

Ground attacks, backed by air support, have forced some insurgents over the borders into Chad, Cameroon and Niger, Air Force Squadron Leader Chris Erondu said in an e-mailed statement on Feb. 5.

In Adamawa state, which borders Borno, nine soldiers were killed in a gunfight with Boko Haram members yesterday, Lagos-based The Punch newspaper reported, citing an unidentified military official.

More than 10,000 Nigerians have fled into Cameroon and Niger, the United Nations Refugee Agency said last month. Hundreds more are moving to the Christian-dominated south to cities such as Port Harcourt, the heart of the oil industry.

British Warning

Internationally, majority-Muslim northern Nigeria is seen as a danger zone. A Jan. 27 statement from Britain’s Foreign Office warned Britons not to visit five northeastern states, saying there is a “threat of retaliatory attacks following the declared state of emergency and subsequent military operations.”

As the attacks spreads in the countryside, isolated villages in Borno such as Gwoza, where a roadside bomb killed at least seven people last month, are bearing the brunt of the violence.

“Residents of Gwoza and other nearby villages have been living in great fear of any possible attacks by members of the Boko Haram sect,” said Mohammed Musa, a farmer who travels to Maiduguri to sell his beans. “These terrorists have continued to attack our villages killing innocent people.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.