As many as 2,000 soldiers and civilians may have been killed at the hands of Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria this week, in what Amnesty International said could be one of the Islamist terrorist group’s deadliest acts since its inception in 2002.
Boko Haram, the same extremist group responsible for the notorious kidnapping of over 200 schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria, last spring, launched a series of attacks on the town of Baga, near the border with Chad, over the weekend.
The threat of Boko Haram is a key issue in Nigeria’s presidential election, which is scheduled for Feb. 14. Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has failed to control the group, which has grown in size and influence since he took office in 2010. Jonathan, a Christian, will face Muslim northerner Muhammadu Buhari, who is running on a platform of increased security.
Baga was targeted because it houses a multinational military base intended to provide security against such attacks. That base was raided and possibly destroyed over the weekend when Nigerian soldiers called for reinforcements that reportedly never arrived. Many soldiers and civilians fled over the border to Chad and many others were killed as they attempted to escape.
On Wednesday, Boko Haram insurgents attacked Baga’s remaining residents, who also tried to flee to Chad. According to those on the ground in Baga, it was mainly women, children, and the elderly who were unable to escape fast enough to save themselves, leaving hundreds, if not thousands, of bodies strewn throughout the main town and its surrounding villages.
Baga’s location in the rural bush made verifying reports of the violence slow and unreliable, but Muhammad Abba Gava, the head of a civilian vigilante group trying to counter the insurgents, told the Associated Press on Friday that “The human carnage perpetrated by Boko Haram terrorists in Baga was enormous.”
In a conversation with Foreign Policy, Joe Siegle, director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, D.C., said the lack of reinforcement for soldiers during Sunday’s attack is yet another example of the Nigerian military’s failure to respond appropriately to the threat of Boko Haram. While soldiers may intend to stand their ground, he said if they can’t rely on backup to actually arrive, defeating the insurgents will become impossible.
“The more telling story from this isn’t just that there’s been another attack, but that there’s been a failure to launch an effective response after the concerted series of attacks on civilians and occasionally military bases,” he told FP.
On Dec. 29, Boko Haram insurgents in northern Cameroon attacked a military base there, but were warded off by airstrikes issued by the Cameroonian government. No such increase in escalation has been suggested by the Nigerian government after this week’s attacks.
And in a statement released Friday, Daniel Eyre, Amnesty’s Nigeria researcher, reiterated the need for swift government response to the increased violence.
“This attack reiterates the urgent need for Boko Haram to stop the senseless killing of civilians and for the Nigerian government to take measures to protect a population who live in constant fear of such attacks,” he said.