Brutal attacks on a mosque and a village in northeastern Nigeria that left 56 people dead raised fresh questions Tuesday over the military’s offensive seeking to end a four-year Islamist insurgency.
Security forces claim they have chased out members of Islamist extremist group Boko Haram and destroyed their camps, but a series of attacks on civilians in recent weeks has signalled that any gains may have been short-lived.
Some analysts say the military, which began its offensive in May, may have only succeeded so far in pushing the insurgents into more remote areas, where recent violence has occurred.
The army’s strategy of encouraging the formation of citizen vigilante groups to help find and arrest Boko Haram members may also be backfiring, with concerns that the group is targeting civilians out of revenge and to instill fear.
“Such attacks targeting people helping the authorities against Boko Haram is bound to continue,” said Abdullahi Bawa Wase, a security analyst and rapporteur at the UN Department for Safety and Security.
“And there is more to it than that. Following the state of emergency, Boko Haram was pushed out to the border with Cameroon where they still hold sway.
“The responsibility of the security personnel is not to push out the insurgents but to neutralise them, arrest and prosecute them.”
The attacks over the weekend at the mosque in Konduga and the village of Ngom village in the nearby Mafa district were believed to be out of revenge for the activities of the vigilante groups.
On Sunday morning, suspected Boko Haram members stormed the mosque in Konduga and shot dead 44 people, a senior government official said.
In Mafa on Saturday night, the insurgents shot dead 12 others at the victims’ homes, another local official said.
Residents said that the attackers were wearing army camouflage, a tactic they have used in the past. Some also alleged a number of victims’ throats were slit, but there had been no official confirmation.
Many details of the violence remained unclear and the military has not provided any official statement. Neither could military officials be reached on Tuesday.
The army launched the offensive after President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in the northeast, Boko Haram’s home base, on May 14.
There appeared to be a decline in the number of attacks after the offensive was launched, but security forces have cut phone lines in the region and access to remote areas is restricted, making it difficult to verify the army’s claims.
Recent weeks have seen particularly violent assaults targeting civilians, including three attacks on schools.
Elizabeth Donnelly, Africa programme manager at London-based think tank Chatham House, said “the state of emergency was never going to end this crisis entirely”.
She said the current violence appears to be much more focused on the northeast as opposed to attacks between 2010 and 2012 that saw Boko Haram gradually spread its targets in northern and central Nigeria.
“So the military might argue that yes, these attacks are taking place, but that’s a sign of the military closing in Boko Haram,” she said.
“But the flip side of that may be that we’re seeing Boko Haram flexing its muscle.”
Donnelly also pointed out, as others have, that a major military assault in 2009 aimed at decimating Boko Haram led to some 800 deaths, but the group re-emerged the following year with more deadly and sophisticated attacks.
The insurgency has left some 3,600 people dead since 2009, including killings by the security forces, who have been accused of major abuses.
Boko Haram has claimed to be seeking an Islamic state in Africa’s most populous nation, but it is also believed to include various factions with different aims.
Nigeria’s 160 million population is roughly divided between a mainly Muslim north and predominately Christian south.
The leader of its main Islamist extremist faction, Abubakar Shekau, claimed in a video message seen by AFP on Monday a series of recent deadly attacks on security forces.
The military has dismissed Shekau’s previous claims as pure propaganda and say they are pursuing him. His whereabouts remain unknown.
The army has also given no indication of how it will deal with the latest upsurge in violence.
“The government is claiming they are winning the war, but they are not,” said Abubakar Tsav, a former police commissioner for Nigeria’s economic capital Lagos. [AFP]