Nigeria says military has freed 178 captives of Boko Haram

Nigeria's new president, who met in late July with President Obama, has stepped up efforts to rescue hostages taken by Islamist militant group Boko Haram. 

Jossy Ola/AP
Women and children rescued by Nigerian soldiers from Boko Haram extremists in northeast Nigeria eat a meal on their arrival at the Military office in Maiduguri, Nigeria, Thursday.

Two weeks after Nigeria’s new president shook up his Army by forcing out 25 top generals, a military spokesman said 178 people had been rescued from Boko Haram.

Some 150 of the rescued were women and children. The operation took place in northeastern Borno state, the heartland of the militant Islamist group. The military said it had captured one of the group's commanders during the operation.  

If it proves true – Nigerian officials have in the past walked back such claims – the operation would be good news for President Mohammadu Buhari. The newly elected leader met President Obama in the Oval Office two weeks ago; Obama said Mr. Buhari had a "reputation for integrity" and praised his efforts to combat Boko Haram. 

CNN reports that the Nigerian Army released photos showing lines of trucks packed with females and children as partial proof. The BBC says it is unknown whether any of those taken from captivity were among the 279 girls abducted from a school last year in Chibok in a kidnapping that got global attention.

Buhari was elected in March partly on a platform to knock out Boko Haram, which has been operating with violent impunity in Nigeria’s northeast region for at least six years.  The group, a toxic mixture of criminals, thugs, and young religious radicals, has declared its intent to create an Islamic caliphate there. An estimated 55,000 persons have been killed in often random attacks against Christians and Muslims alike. 

By the beginning of 2015, Boko Haram succeeded in creating a network of interlocking towns and contiguous territory in the northeast. A concerted effort by Nigeria and the forces of Chad and Cameroon helped break up those gains, even before Buhari took office. 

As the Daily Mail reports today, Boko Haram:

was pushed out of most of the vast swathes of territory it controlled at the start of the year but militants have dispersed and returned to their guerrilla tactics of hitting soft targets with bombs and raiding towns.

Yet regional coordination against Boko Haram has so far been difficult for Buhari to achieve. The Sydney Morning Herald today points out that a July 30 deadline to set up a joint force has been missed:

a multinational taskforce of 8700 troops from Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, Chad and Benin is being set up in the Chadian capital N'Djamena with [the] aim [to crush the rebels]. The force was supposed to start operations on July 31 but has been dogged by a lack of funding and political will. 

The Obama administration pledged $5 million to Nigeria after Buhari’s election in March, which the US president declared an “affirmative” symbol of Nigeria’s “commitment to democracy.”

At the time of the White House meeting between the two men, Reuters noted that:

Washington has committed $5 million in new support for a multi-national task force set up to fight Boko Haram. Obama did not signal whether he might send U.S. troops to help train Nigerian forces.

The United States is also looking to improve its economic ties with Nigeria, Africa's biggest oil producer, especially as relations with two of Africa's other big powers, Egypt and South Africa, have cooled.

The Pentagon has been hinting it may review some aid and coordination with Nigeria on Boko Haram, having a year ago been enthusiastic about doing so but finding it difficult to work with the previous administration. 

Despite some gains, such as the recapture of those kidnapped today, the size and scale of the unrest is formidable. The Nigeria Security Tracker, published by the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, records nearly daily accounts of Boko Haram violence. 

         July 20: Five Boko Haram bombers killed themselves and three soldiers in Damaturu, Yobe.

         July 22: Suicide attacks killed twenty in Maroua, Cameroon. Boko Haram is suspected.

         July 22: A suicide bomber and a separate, second bomb killed thirty-seven in Gombe. Boko Haram is suspected.

         July 22: Boko Haram killed eight in Biu, Borno.

         July 24: Boko Haram killed twenty-five in Madagali, Borno.

          July 24: Boko Haram killed fifteen in Askira/Uba, Borno.

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