In another setback for Nigeria's counter-insurgency strategy, Boko Haram militants have overrun a key military base in the country's northeast. Witnesses said the militants had taken control on Saturday of Baga, a town near Nigeria's border with Chad, after troops fled the town leaving residents at the mercy of the attackers.
Baga is a garrison town for the Multi-National Joint Task Force that comprises troops from Nigeria, Chad, Niger, and Cameron. The troops are supposed to patrol the border area and go after Boko Haram, a violent Islamist movement that has paralyzed governance in much of Nigeria's Muslim-dominated northeast.
Nigerians living in the northeast, much of which is under a state of emergency, have long complained of government negligence and charged the military with neglecting its duties. The rout of a multilateral military base underscores the challenge to Nigeria's government ahead of a presidential election next month.
A local senator, Maina Maaji Lawan, told the BBC that militants stormed Baga from several directions early Saturday and that, far from defending the town on Lake Chad, the multilateral troops had run away. Residents escaped into the forest, he said.
Communications with the town were cut off and exact information about casualty numbers could not be confirmed, he said. "We are very dispirited," the senator added.
Confirming that the military had abandoned the base, he said people's frustration knew "no bounds" over the apparent fact that the military had not fought back.
"There is definitely something wrong that makes our military abandon their posts each time there is an attack from Boko Haram," the senator said.
Earlier in the week, Boko Haram abducted around 40 young men from a village in the surrounding province, Agence France-Presse reports. A resident told reporters that armed militants driving pickup trucks had ordered villages to attend a sermon, then began picking out men aged between 10 and 23. The village lies close to a forest where the group is believed to operate bases.
Reports of the abductions emerged on Friday when residents who escaped from the village reached Maiduguri, the provincial capital. They said the gunmen arrived on the evening of Dec. 31. The capture of young men during raids on villages is consistent with Boko Haram's tactics, though much is still unknown about the group's strategy beyond its oft-repeated claim that it seeks to establish an Islamic state in northern Nigeria.
Boko Haram is still holding in captivity more than 200 schoolgirls it abducted from their school in Chibok in Borno state last April.
The abduction drew worldwide condemnation, after which President Goodluck Jonathan vowed to secure the area, including by deploying more troops. But the promised troop numbers have failed to materialize, often leaving residents to rely entirely on vigilantes for protection.
The Islamists are believed to control large swathes of territory in Borno as well as several towns and villages in two other northeastern states, Adamawa and Yobe.
Boko Haram's five-year uprising in Nigeria has claimed more than 13,000 lives and has seen dozens of people, including women and children, kidnapped by the Islamists.
Baga, the garrison town for the multilateral force, was the scene of an alleged military massacre in April 2013. Human rights groups and media reports said that Nigerian troops had stormed the town after militants mounted a deadly attack on an Army patrol. Thousands of houses were burned and over 100 bodies were recovered in the aftermath, according to community leaders who spoke to Human Rights Watch. Nigerian military officials said that only armed militants were killed.
The incident cast a shadow over Western cooperation with Nigeria's military. The US has supplied arms and training to Nigeria, as well as intelligence support, primarily in pursuit of Boko Haram. Britain and France have also assisted Nigeria since the high-profile capture of the schoolgirls from Chibok. Dozens of those captured have since escaped, but 219 are still believed to be in captivity.