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Nigeria sentenced 54 soldiers to death by firing squad this week for refusing to fight Islamist extremists, highlighting the state’s continued difficulties in containing Boko Haram just months before pivotal presidential elections.
The judgments are linked to a series of Boko Haram attacks in August, when soldiers refused to recapture three towns taken over by the group. The 54 men were part of a larger group of 97 soldiers “being court martialed for offenses including mutiny, assault, absconding, house breaking and disorderly behavior,” Reuters reports.
Morale is reportedly very low among government forces, who complain of being outnumbered and outgunned by suspected Islamic terrorists in northeast Nigeria. Troops regularly complain of being left without leadership or enough food on the battlefield, and say they have not been fully compensated for their work, reports The Associated Press.
“The military has failed to protect Nigeria’s territorial integrity,” Manji Cheto, vice president of Teneo intelligence, a political risk advisory firm, told Bloomberg. Ms. Cheto noted a rise in vigilantes from communities that “felt let down by security forces.”
In addition to desertion, soldiers have been accused of killing civilians and burning down their homes, Reuters reports.
Boko Haram declared an Islamic Caliphate in August, and continues to attack towns and villages in the northeast of Nigeria, which is Africa's most populous country and largest economy. The extremist group kidnapped an estimated 185 women and children and killed 32 people this week, according to CNN. Telecommunications towers were taken down or disabled in previous attacks, and it took four days for news of this raid to reach officials.
“Our town is ruined by insurgency, our people are being killed on a daily basis,” Haruna Ibrahim, a resident of Maiduguri, told Bloomberg. Maiduguri is the capital of Borno state in the northeast, and has been the heart of the militant insurgency.
The isolation and displacement occurring in the northeast could raise serious issues come Feb. 14 elections, reports Vice News. Nigeria’s electoral laws say that citizens can only vote in the regions where they are registered, disenfranchising the estimated 1.3 million Nigerians who have been forced from their homes in the northeast of the country. Thousands have fled across Nigeria’s borders into Cameroon, Chad, and Niger, AP reports.
This election is expected to be the tightest race since Nigeria ended military rule in 1999. President Goodluck Jonathan is facing off against opposition-backed former military dictator Gen. Muhammadu Buhari. Buhari is being plugged as more capable of stopping Boko Haram’s insurgency.
"Unless the [electoral] act is amended, the IDP (internally displaced person) issue could expose the election to legal challenges by the losing party," Kayode Idowu, spokesperson for the Independent National Electoral Commission, said Monday.