Friday, 3 April 2015

In The Home of Peace, A Siege of Fear

Boko Haram: A VOA Special Report
Carnage and mayhem are part of the fabric of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a campaign of terror by the Islamist group Boko Haram. As the threat spreads to other regions, and countries, fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it. Or may be making things worse.
By Ibrahim Ahmed and Mike Eckel

MAIDUGURI, NIGERIA– At the moment when the soldier slits the first throat, one body is already crumpled in the shallow grave, blood staining the sandy soil on the grave’s rim. In the background a line of victims sits patiently, as if waiting for a haircut at a barber shop.
Carnage and mayhem are part of the fabric of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a campaign of terror by the Islamist group Boko Haram. As the threat spreads to other regions, and countries, fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it. Or may be making things worse.
The grainy video, shot on a cell phone the last week of May 2014, shows three men, wearing camouflage fatigues issued by the Nigerian military, some carrying AK-47 rifles and machetes, who are joined by two others wearing civilian clothes. In all, three executions are shown. The victims are believed to be either sympathizers or members of the violent Islamist terror group Boko Haram, or possibly innocent civilians. The soldiers appear to be Nigerian military.

Another soldier serving in the specially-created military task force struggling to contain the threat posed by Boko Haram provided the video to VOA. The soldier described the video, and others, as illustrative of the tactics being used to fight Boko Haram: “the military way.”

Five years into an insurgency, Nigeria is reeling. Carnage and mayhem that was once limited to the poor, largely Muslim northeast has spread elsewhere. Boko Haram now openly challenges the government, its campaign to impose its fundamentalist view of Islam intensifying. Daily shootings are common in many places in the country; the capital, Abuja, has been hit repeatedly by car and suicide bombings, most recently on June 25. More than 2,000 people have been killed this year alone, according to rights groups, and an estimated 250,000 Nigerians have been driven from their homes in three northeastern states.
The central mosque, in Maiduguri, is located near city neighborhoods that were briefly under control of Boko Haram militants in 2012-2013. (VOA/Ibrahim Ahmed)
The response of President Goodluck Jonathan’s government has been mixed at best. Corruption is endemic in government institutions, particularly among security agencies, and the inability of security forces to rescue more than 200 schoolgirls abducted in the northeastern town of Chibok on April 14, has stoked questions of competence.

One police officer who is a member of the joint task force serving in northeastern Borno state said troops are given just 30 bullets before heading out to patrol or search for Boko Haram. If you want more bullets, you have to bribe a superior officer.

“How do you fight an enemy that comes to you with over a thousand bullets?” the officer told VOA.

A growing number of experts and outsiders, in and out of Nigeria, worry that the tactics— extrajudicial killing, abductions, arbitrary arrests– used by government security forces to battle Boko Haram may in fact be worsening matters, terrorizing a population that was already dubious of the military and pushing them to sympathize with the militants. A report released Tuesday by Amnesty International documented evidence of extrajudicial executions, and other serious human rights violations by the military in northeast Nigeria.

And an insurgency that can use poverty, corruption, historic grievances, sectarian enmity as fertile ground to grow and spread means all of West Africa and the region known as the Sahel is in danger.

“What started as a local problem is now a regional problem,” said Peter Pham, a longtime Nigeria researcher at the Washington-based Atlantic Council.

The heart of the insurgency is where it largely began: the city of Maiduguri, a city now paralyzed by fear.

"We Have To Rebuild It, A Thousand Times If Need Be"

The sign at the entrance to the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, reads “The Home of Peace.” Yakubu Mohammed used to pass it regularly as he drove his bus along the 90-mile route, bringing passengers between the Cameroon border town of Gamboru-Ngala and Maiduguri’s busy commercial markets.

On a day last August, as Mohammed made his outbound journey, militants stopped his bus near the village of Dikwa, midway to the border. Armed men, peering through the windows, ordered three passengers to get off the bus.

“They put a gun to my head,” Mohammed said. “One of the insurgents selected three people who looked like they were non-Muslims and ordered them out. Two were shot and killed while the third insisted he was a Muslim.”

“A gunman who looked like a 12-year old boy took the third person’s phones and money, then allowed him to climb back into the bus,” he said.
Bus drivers, shown here in Maiduguri's Mairi Motor Park, have stopped driving many routes out of the city, fearing ambushes from Boko Haram militants. (VOA/Ibrahim Ahmed)
In the Nigerian states hardest hit by Boko Haram’s campaign —Borno, Yobe and, to a lesser degree, Adawama— commerce, and for many, life, has sputtered to a halt.

Borno, in the very northeastern corner, used to be the gateway for trade in agricultural products, livestock and textiles between the whole of northern Nigeria and the neighboring countries of Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Sudan, Central African Republic and even the two Congos.

That’s pretty much come to stop in recent months as shuttle traders and farmers fear violence from the militants, said Alhaji Rijiya Bama, chairman of the Borno State Chamber of Commerce.

“They don’t come now because (Boko Haram fighters) block the highways and kill the drivers, then steal or burn their goods” he said.

Around the region, farms lie fallow, covered with grass, as farmers give up on planting, knowing that the militants will likely pillage their crops, or simply burn them.

The cattle market in the Yobe state town of Potiskum used to be one of the largest in West Africa; Boko Haram attacked it twice; more than 100 people died in an attack there in 2012. Now it’s a ghost market, with few ranchers willing to risk their herds being stolen or killed. Despite the imminent rainy season, hundreds of combines, tractors and other mechanized planting equipment sat wasted and rusting at the headquarters of the Borno State Agricultural Mechanization Authority in Maiduguri. Officials have warned of severe food shortages in several states if the planting season fails.

The oppressive fear isn’t limited to the rural regions, either. Maiduguri, a city of about 1 million that was home to many of Boko Haram’s central leadership, has been hit repeatedly by ambushes and bombings, including one on Jan. 14.
(VOA Graphics)
On that afternoon, Salihu Usman, 16, was at home when he heard the sound of the explosion, coming from the direction of his father’s kebab shop not far from the post office in Maiduguri. The bazaar was mostly occupied by young people selling cellphone handsets and parts and repairing them. A car packed with explosives was left near the traffic circle, only a few yards from where his father was busy preparing skewered lamb kebabs for the afternoon and evening rush. Usman is his family’s only breadwinner now.

“This is all I know how to do,” he said. “I can’t do anything else now, like go to school, because then who will take care of my family?”

After years of escalating violence, Boko Haram burst into the global consciousness in April, when its militants abducted more than 200 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok, 80 miles south of Maiduguri, and herded them onto buses and drove into the forests. The group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, said in a video released days later that they were being held captive as slaves and would not be returned unless the government released imprisoned militants.

One 17-year-old girl, who later escaped and asked that her name not be used, recounted the kidnapping: how she and others took off their head scarves and threw them out the window of the truck they were riding on.

“The girls started removing their head scarves and throwing them on the road so that if soldiers heard that we were kidnapped, they would be able to follow and rescue us. So we kept throwing our head scarves on the road, at night,” she told VOA.
(VOA Graphics)
Under the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, a campaign to publicize the girls’ plight and press the Jonathan government to do more to find them, went viral around the world, eliciting support and concern from celebrities, activities, politicians and public figures such as President Barack Obama’s wife, Michelle.

Maiduguri, meanwhile, has become a haven for refugees escaping the dangers of surrounding towns and villages, and the destruction that has left whole towns and villages ravaged or abandoned.

Boko Haram: "Western Education Is Forbidden"

Thousands of women and children have fled to refugee camps, like this one in Bole, Adamawa state, one of three northeastern states under state of emergency. (VOA/Ibrahim Ahmed)

Boko Haram’s genesis lies in the complicated religious, sectarian and political realities of Nigeria, dating by some accounts at least as far back as its colonial past under British control. The country’s northern regions have seen sporadic bloodletting and interethnic clashes for many years, where mainly Muslim ethnic groups like the Hausa, Fulani and the Kanuri predominate. Communities in Nigeria’s impoverished north have long resented the relative wealth and clout of the country’s southern ethnic groups, like the Yoruba or the Igbo, many of whom are Christian.

“These historical cleavages in Nigerian society… are being played out in this insurgency and the lack of response,” said Mausi Segun, an Abuja-based researcher for Human Rights Watch. “It’s the sense that the government has very little control over the military, a sense that military is sabotaging the counter-insurgency and doing it for political gain.”

In the 1990s, when Nigeria was still under military rule, more extreme interpretations of Islam began to influence Muslim communities in the north. In some places, where Muslim religious schools similar to madrassas were established, adherents to this fundamentalist set of beliefs were dubbed the “Nigerian Taliban.” Violence was largely absent from the group’s teachings.

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