Nigerian militant attack highlights Army's weaknesses

The latest attack by the Islamist group Boko Haram left 55 dead Tuesday. Experts say the fighting is unlikely to let up until the Nigerian military agrees to negotiate.

A policeman inspects the site to collect evidence in Bama, Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria, Tuesday. Suspected members of Boko Haram armed with machineguns laid siege on the northeastern town of Bama on Tuesday, freeing over 100 prison inmates and leaving 55 people dead, the military said.

A highly organized, coordinated attack on a remote town in northeastern Nigeria on Tuesday by suspected members of the Islamist terror group Boko Haram highlights the limited impact of the military's efforts to curtail the Islamists’ capacity. 

Despite a costly military response, Boko Haram’s insurgency has showed no sign of letting up in recent months, and some observers are now recommending that the government release imprisoned group members and their families to help facilitate a cease-fire. 

So far, government "measures have failed to address the root drivers of conflict and are unlikely to stem militancy in the medium term, especially given the cycle of violence created by security force heavy-handedness,” says Roddy Barclay, Senior West Africa Analyst at Control Risks.

Armed gunmen reportedly arrived in Bama on Tuesday morning in buses and pickup trucks, attacking the Army barracks and a police station before breaking into the prison and releasing 105 inmates. The attack, which is said to have lasted for several hours, left the barracks and other government buildings burnt to the ground and 55 people dead, including four civilians and 13 members of the Islamist group. 

The clash is the latest in a string of Boko Haram attacks, part of an insurgency that began in 2009 in Borno state, which has remained the group's stronghold since.

Boko Haram loosely translates as "Western education is sinful" in the local Hausa language, and the organization's goal is to carve a caliphate in a country split roughly equally between Christians and Muslims. As its collisions with local authorities have intensified, Boko Haram has demanded the release of its family and group members from Nigerian prisons. Attacks by the group have killed more than 3,000 people since 2009, according to Human Rights Watch.

Boko Haram’s campaign has been mainly focused on local grievances, although kidnappings of expatriates is a rising tactic. Prison attacks, for instance, have been a regular feature of their activities. In March, at least 25 people were killed in coordinated gun and bomb attacks by Boko Haram in Ganya, near the Cameroon border, allowing some 120 prison inmates to escape. In 2012, there were at least three substantial attacks on prisons by Boko Haram.

Recent videos from the group suggest an evolving posture and a growing influence of transnational ideologies. Security analysts say that Boko Haram members have received training from other Islamist groups in the Sahel. High-profile kidnappings have increased, including that of a French family who were taken hostage in February and released in April. To complicate matters, the group has also given rise to a breakaway Al Qaeda-linked faction called Ansaru, which seems to follow a more international agenda and is believed to be responsible for several expatriate kidnappings and attacks. 

On April 24, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan set up a “committee on dialogue and peaceful resolution of security challenges.” Until then, the government had been reluctant to engage in dialogue with the group, stating that there was no clear leader to negotiate with. It has instead responded to the problem purely by military means. And even now, the president seems hesitant that negotiation can work. The committee is tasked to "perform magic," he says, as it attempts to identify the leaders of Boko Haram and draw a cease-fire. 

The outlook is bleak, however. “Based on previous statements by Boko Haram, they are against the idea of having the conversation in the media,” says Kole Shettima, director of Nigerian chapter of the MacArthur Foundation. “The release of women and children would be a good gesture. The government doesn’t even know who is in prison. It is a black hole of information.”

A violent clash between the Islamist group and Nigeria’s military last month killed an estimated 200 people – although figures have been difficult to verify. 

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