Boko Haram fighters have killed about 90 civilians and wounded 500 in ongoing skirmishes in a Cameroonian border town near Nigeria, the latest sign of the Islamic extremist group’s extended threat across the region.
An estimated 800 Boko Haram militants have waged gruesome attacks, including burning to death civilians, on the town of Fotokol since Wednesday. Cameroon’s information minister, Issa Tchiroma, told The Associated Press that they’ve also burned churches and mosques in addition to looting livestock and food.
Security experts believe the fighters crossed into Cameroon from nearby Gamboru, a Nigerian border town that had been a Boko Haram stronghold since November. Gamboru was retaken earlier this week when Chadian and Nigerian air strikes, supported by Chadian ground troops, drove them out.
The new attacks are said to be the militants' response to increased ground strikes and bombing raids this week from Nigeria and its neighbors, Chad and Cameroon. Militaries from the three countries have reportedly killed hundreds of Islamic fighters, marking the biggest offensive against Boko Haram in its more than five-year history.
On Tuesday, a spokesman for Nigeria’s military said Nigerian forces had "liberated from Boko Haram presence" more than a dozen towns in the country’s northeast. “This is one of many severe blows delivered to the terrorists, with more to come," spokesman Mike Omeri told the AP.
Defense officials say 13 Chadian and six Cameroonian troops have been killed so far in the ongoing offensive. But despite such loses, the countries appear committed to finally putting an end to the extremist group's violent rampage.
“Chad’s forces are determined to crush this force of evil,” said Chad’s information minister, Hassan Sylla Bakari, according to The New York Times. “We are absolutely determined because Boko Haram is a threat to the entire subregion. They want to asphyxiate the Chadian economy by blocking our outlets in Nigeria and Cameroon.”
As fighting rages on, African Union (AU) officials are working to finalize plans for a multinational force to fight Boko Haram. The AU authorized last week a 7,500-strong force from Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Benin.
But questions about funding for the mission still remain. Unnamed United Nations officials told the AP that African leaders are seeking approval and money from the UN Security Council.
Meanwhile, the fighting has led political and legal leaders in Nigeria to consider postponing next week’s scheduled presidential election. The Nigerian Army is pressing for the postponement to allow it more time to eliminate Boko Haram and secure polling stations in the militant-controlled northeast. Nigeria’s Council of State, an advisory body chaired by President Goodluck Jonathan, is considering a delay of up to two months, The Wall Street Journal reports.
The proposal has infuriated opposition leaders, who accuse Mr. Jonathan of trying to buy time for himself in the closely contested campaign. Opinion polls show that Jonathan is running even with rival candidate Muhammadu Buhari, a former military leader.
But Aryn Baker, a reporter for Time magazine, argues that delaying the election could backfire on Jonathan.
If Boko Haram continues with its campaign of deadly bombings – a female suicide [bomber] blew herself up in the northeastern state of Gombe on Feb. 2 – a delay in elections might actually harm Jonathan’s chances. Jonathan’s record on fighting Boko Haram is weak, and Buhari has made security the cornerstone of his campaign. In the end, delaying the elections could end up benefitting Boko Haram the most. More debate on who should be the next President means less attention on what should be done about militancy.
Some 10,000 people were killed in Boko Haram-related violence last year compared to 2,000 in the first four years of the insurgency, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. The UN says the conflict has displaced 1.5 million Nigerians.