Militants from the Islamist Boko Haram group began attacking Nigeria’s major northeastern city of Maiduguri shortly after midnight, residents told FRANCE 24 on Sunday, in an alarming escalation of violence ahead of a critical general election.
Explosions and gunfire erupted on the outskirts of the city in the middle of the night, marking the start of a major attack, according to Maiduguri residents. The sound of constant shelling could be heard from the Njimtilo area, about 20 kilometres away from the city, until around 11am local time.
Hours after the predawn raid, Nigerian troops, backed by heavy weaponry and fighter jets, fought pitched battles with the militants, according to local officials.
The city was being patrolled by military, police and members of the Civilian Joint Task Force - a group of government-supported militias, a former city official of Maiduguri, Mohammed Bolori, told FRANCE 24 by phone.
By daylight, movement in and out of the city was restricted and a curfew was imposed mid-morning in Maiduguri, capital of the northeastern Borno state, which has been under a state of emergency since 2013.
“You can leave your house, but only on foot,” said Bolori. “For the first time, the city has banned movement even on bicycles. They suspect that some Boko Haram members have already entered the city and that is why they are enforcing security.”
News of the assault came amid reports of the insurgents launching attacks both to the north and south of the city, with security sources saying Boko Haram had captured the town of Monguno, 125 kilometres north of Maiduguri, including a military base, after a fierce battle with government troops.
"Monguno has fallen, Monguno has fallen," a senior military officer said, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorised to speak to the media.
The brazen attack on Maiduguri comes just weeks ahead of Nigeria’s critical general election and a day after Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan visited the city on a campaign stop, promising once again to end the deadly insurgence.
The birthplace of the al Qaeda-linked Boko Haram movement, Maiduguri is a strategically and symbolically important city and would be a major prize for the insurgents who are trying to carve out an Islamic state.
The insurgents last attempted to take Maiduguri in December 2013 and attacked a nearby army and airforce base.
Panic among Maiduguri residents
Sunday’s attack spread panic among the city’s roughly 1 million residents, who include Muslims as well as Christians.
Maiduguri resident Tarhodjidongar Boukar told FRANCE 24 that church services had been cut short as people scrambled to return home. “The ceremony was shortened and people began to walk home,” said Boukar. “Now I am at home. Everything depends on the army. If they open up circulation [traffic] today, I will move around. If not, I will stay here,” he said.
Another Maiduguri resident Fatima Zannah, a civil servant, said she was staying at home with her children.
“Everything stops when there is a curfew. It’s so frustrating to be at home. You hear the sounds and you are scared. You are just trying to find out information about the outside by listening to the radio, calling people and looking at the net,” she said.
Amnesty International has warned that the Maiduguri attack has put hundreds of thousands of civilians at “grave risk” – especially for those trying to escape the violence.
Residents from around Njimtilo village reportedly fled the area towards central Maiduguri, according to Amnesty, and there were fears that if the city is attacked, they would have nowhere to go.
“The government must ensure the protection of its civilians is at the core of its operations at this very dangerous time. There are hundreds of thousands of people in Maiduguri. Tens of thousands of people had already fled to Maiduguri from several other villages and towns attacked and controlled by Boko Haram, and are now living in camps there. The government’s failure to protect residents of Maiduguri at this time could lead to a disastrous humanitarian crisis,” said the London-based group in a statement released Sunday.
Boko Haram has waged a five-year insurgency to carve out an Islamic state in the northeast of Africa’s biggest economy. The militants control vast swathes of Borno state and some areas of neighbouring Adamawa and Yobe states. They recently took control of the town and an army base at Baga by Lake Chad.
Last week, Boko Haram claimed responsibility for a massacre of hundreds of people in the town.
Kerry meets candidates in Lagos
The Nigerian military’s inability to squash the group has become a major headache for Jonathan, who is seeking re-election in February.
Reflecting mounting international concerns over the possibility of post-election violence, US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Nigeria on Sunday, where he met with Jonathan and the main opposition candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, in the Nigerian commercial capital of Lagos.
It is the first visit by America’s top diplomat to the country since 2012.
During their meeting, Kerry appealed to Jonathan and Buhari to instruct their supporters to refrain from violence, warning also that the US will deny entry to anyone responsible for stoking violence during next month’s elections.
“Given the stakes it’s absolutely critical that these elections are conducted peacefully,” Kerry said after the meeting.
“It is imperative that Nigeria holds its elections on time,” he added, an apparent response to comments from Nigeria’s national security advisor this week that the Feb. 14 poll could be delayed.
Kerry also said that the US is also “prepared to do more” to help Nigeria fight Boko Haram.
In a report last week, the Center for Naval Analyses, a federally funded research corporation, called the group a locally focused insurgency largely fueled by bad government.
“The conflict is being sustained by masses of unemployed youth who are susceptible to Boko Haram recruitment, an alienated and frightened northern population that refuses to cooperate with state security forces, and a governance vacuum that has allowed the emergence of militant sanctuaries in the northeast,'' the CNA paper said.
In December, Nigeria cancelled the last stage of US training of a Nigerian army battalion, a reflection of strained counterterrorism relations between the two governments.
In April 2014, Boko Haram kidnapped around 270 schoolgirls from the northern town of Chibok, prompting international condemnation and a campaign to “Bring Back Our Girls.'' Most of the girls, however, have still not been rescued.
(With AP, REUTERS)
Date created : 2015-01-25