Nigerian Army missing in action amid Boko Haram terror surge

The militant Islamist group has increased its destructive attacks in the new year, leaving many wondering why the response from the Nigerian Army and government has been inadequate.

Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters
Militia hunters helping the army to fight the Boko Haram insurgence hold a meeting in Yola, Adamawa State January 14, 2015. Boko Haram says it is building an Islamic state that will revive the glory days of northern Nigeria's medieval Muslim empires, but for those in its territory life is a litany of killings, kidnappings, hunger and economic collapse. Slowly, with the help of traditional hunters armed with home made guns and a reputation for magic powers, government forces have pushed Boko Haram out of some of its southern possessions. BOKOHARAM/ REUTERS/ (NIGERIA - Tags: CIVIL UNREST MILITARY) :rel:d:bm:GF2EB1I1ND501

The Nigerian Army remains largely absent in northeastern Nigeria as the Islamist militant group Boko Haram continues its deadly campaign across the region.

The Associated Press reports that more than 40 people have been killed in seven villages in Adamawa state in recent days, where burning and looting are rampant. Many villagers were forced to flee after waiting in vain for Nigerian troops to come to their aid, as has become the norm.

"They don't spare anything: they slaughtered people like rams and they burned down our houses after looting food," Emmanuel Kwache told the AP. "There's no presence of troops, some residents are hiding on top of hills, while those that could not run were abducted, particularly youths and women."

State legislator Adamu Kamale said he has appealed to authorities to send troops since the attacks began on Friday, but they’ve yet to arrive.

The absence of security forces in villages and towns across northeastern Nigeria has long frustrated those who live in the region. ( See The Christian Science Monitor's reporting on the issue last February.) But an uptick in unimpeded Boko Haram attacks in recent weeks has intensified the collective anger. As the violence spreads, many people are still asking: Where is the Army?

Experts say corruption, unpaid wages, and sweeping human rights abuses have all contributed to the Army’s inability to stop the radical Islamist movement. Locals have created their own vigilante groups in response. The Army also struggles with a lack of equipment, frequent defections, and infiltrations by Boko Haram informants, all of which has led to strained relations with foreign militaries.

One of the biggest rifts occurred in December, when Nigeria canceled the last stage of US training of a Nigerian Army battalion. The decision followed the White House’s refusal to supply the Army with attack helicopters and fighter jets because of its poor human rights record, The Guardian reports.

Americans first offered the Nigerian Army assistance after the kidnapping of more than 200 girls by Boko Haram captured international attention last year. When testifying before the US Senate on the Nigerian military's ability to rescue the girls, US officials pointed to the funding and corruption challenges within the Nigerian military.

“We’re now looking at a military force that’s, quite frankly, becoming afraid to even engage,” said Alice Friend, the Pentagon’s principal director for African affairs.

US Secretary of State John Kerry played down reports that the US had grown frustrated with Nigeria's commitment to fighting Boko Haram in a rare high-level visit to the country on Sunday.

"The United States is deeply engaged with Nigeria," he said. "Does it always work as well as we would like or as well as the Nigerians would like? The answer is no."

Meanwhile, tensions between Nigeria and its francophone neighbors have delayed the formation of a long-sought regional peacekeeping operation. With the largest military in West Africa, Nigeria has been hesitant to admit any need for regional assistance. The Nigerian government announced last week that it may bring home its soldiers deployed abroad to help fight Boko Haram, while critics argued that more needed to be done. 

But with Nigeria’s presidential election just weeks away, accepting international assistance could reflect poorly on President Goodluck Jonathan's security policies, highlighting his government's inability to contain Boko Haram on its own. President Jonathan faces a serious threat at the ballot box from Muhammadu Buhari, a former general turned candidate.

“Between national pride, being the strongest country and economy in the region, and of course the election coming up … it’s an awkward time for them,” Joe Siegle, director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, told Foreign Policy.

As the threat of Boko Haram spreads across the region – the group recently staged a series of cross-border raids into Cameroon – the pressure on Nigeria to agree to a multinational force continues to grow.

"Nigeria cannot handle the problem alone," Hiroute Guebre Sellassie, the United Nations envoy for the Sahel region of Africa, told Agence France-Presse on Wednesday. "It is time to take action and to be aware of the danger of Boko Haram for the entire African continent," she added, speaking in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where leaders of the 54-nation African Union are scheduled to meet on Friday.

The leaders are expected to discuss a proposed regional force of some 3,000 troops to fight Boko Haram. It would include soldiers from Nigeria, Niger, Benin, Chad and Cameroon, AFP reports.

Some 10,000 people have died in the insurgency in the past year.

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