Boko Haram repelled from key Nigerian city of Maiduguri
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After fierce fighting Sunday between Nigerian troops and Islamic militant group Boko Haram, the city of Maiduguri reached an uneasy calm Monday, though the threat of further attacks is never far away.
Defence Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Chris Olukolade said Sunday evening that troops successfully repelled attacks on Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, and the biggest city in the northeast of the West African country.
Over 100 combatants died in Maiduguri Sunday, mainly insurgents, according to a local journalist who counted bodies at the city’s biggest morgue on Monday. The number of casualties may be even higher soldiers and civilian self-defence fighters who counted bodies Sunday reported over 200 dead.
On Monday, FRANCE 24 spoke by phone to Chumak, head of the Civilian Joint Task Force, a group of government-supported militias in Maiduguri.
“I just returned to my house. Maiduguri is calm and peaceful now. We have lifted the curfew and, right now, my men are doing patrols,” he said.
Other residents confirmed that Kano-Maiduguri Road, the only road into Maiduguri, has been reopened and cars are now driving by areas on the outskirts of the city that were battlegrounds a day earlier.
The Maiduguri attack is not unexpected. Al Qaeda-linked Boko Haram, which means “Western education is sacrilege” in Hausa, was founded in Maiduguri around 2002, making the city both strategically and symbolically important to the group. Maiduguri has been attacked many times in the 5-year Islamic insurgency that killed 10,000 people last year alone. It is home to one of northern Nigeria’s most organised civilian militias, the Civilian JTF, whose patrols “allow the population to sleep at night,” one resident told FRANCE 24.
On January 3, the threat to Maiduguri increased when Boko Haram seized a key military base in Baga, a town on the border with Cameroon that had been the last area in Borno North under government control. Hundreds of civilians were slaughtered and the main road to Maiduguri was left glaringly open for Boko Haram’s advance. While the Nigerian military said they were counter-attacking a week ago, escaping civilians said there was no fighting and the insurgents retain their control.
200 reported dead in Maiduguri clashes
The fighting in Maiduguri broke out shortly after midnight on Sunday and extended late into Sunday morning before the insurgents began to retreat.
Though the first Boko Haram-led attacks were in other parts of the city, by morning, most of the fighting was concentrated in Njimtilo, an area roughly 20 kilometres from Maiduguri city centre.
Witnesses told FRANCE 24 that both soldiers and members of the local vigilante, called Civilian-JTF, fought on the frontlines against the insurgents. Fighter jets of the Nigeria Air Force were also deployed.
“The local civilian defence groups got wind of Boko Haram’s plan to attack Maiduguri. They shared the information with the military and the military and the CJTF moved to the area to meet them. I got this information from one of the vigilantes who was an active participant in the fight yesterday,” Maiduguri barrister Mustapha Zannah told FRANCE 24 in a phone interview.
Defence Ministry spokesman Olukolade said “scores of the terrorists died in the course of the attack, while many of them were also captured with wounds”. The military also said it had captured a Cobra Armoured Vehicle, heavy artillery guns, as well as some machine guns.
Olukolade also said that “an extensive cordon and search is ongoing as part of the mopping up operation to determine details of the heavy casualties suffered by the terrorists.”
Fearful and weary Maiduguri residents were placed under a 24-hour curfew Sunday, but the measure was lifted Monday at 6am, according to Army Division 7 spokesman Colonel Sani Usman.
While the Nigerian army seemed to triumph over Boko Haram in Maiduguri as well as in Konduga, 40 kilometres (25 miles) to the southeast, residents of Monguno, a town 140 kilometres (88 miles) northeast of Maiduguri, were not so lucky. Boko Haram seized it Sunday morning and the fight for the town was ongoing Monday, with the army announcing it would launch air raids.
Maiduguri barrister Mustapha Zannah told FRANCE 24 that Monguno residences had felt the imminent threat.
“When Baga was taken over, Monguno knew they would be next. So many Monguno people fled to Maiduguri,” Zannah told FRANCE 24 by phone.
Hundreds of thousands at "grave risk"
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.
Maiduguri is already home to tens of thousands of refugees from all across the state, including those from Monguno and Baga. On Sunday, residents from around Njimtilo village reportedly fled the fighting towards central Maiduguri. Amnesty voiced fears that, if the city is attacked, these internally displaced people would have nowhere to go.
“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.
The Nigerian military’s inability to squash the group has become a major headache for President Goodluck Jonathan, who is seeking re-election in February.
Jonathan made a surprise visit to Maiduguri 10 days ago and pledged to crush the insurgents. But his repeated promises are ringing hollow as Boko Haram since August has seized and kept control of large swaths of the northeast, including key border crossings into Cameroon, Chad and Niger.
With encouragement from the United Nations, Nigeria and its neighbors are setting up a multinational force to fight the extremists who recently have increased cross-border raids into Cameroon. But there is distrust of Nigeria’s military, which many believe is infiltrated by Boko Haram at the highest levels.
Still, after Sunday’s battle, weary Maiduguri residents still managed to find shards of hope.
“Boko Haram has targeted Maiduguri for years now. In all their videos, they say ‘we are coming.’ But since they recorded a lot of casualties in the fight yesterday, maybe they were weakened and it will be harder for them to fight for Maiduguri as they did before,” Mohammed Bolori, Maiduguri’s former chairman, told FRANCE 24 in a phone interview.
Barrister Zannah also looked to the future.
“This war will end one day and when it ends, we’ll need to put society back together,” he said.
(FRANCE 24 with AP)