Just as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was preaching the importance of a peaceful Nigerian election in the coastal megacity of Lagos on Sunday, Boko Haram militants were engaged in a series of violent attacks in the northern city of Maiduguri, killing an unknown number of soldiers and civilians and terrifying the largest city in the country’s northeast.
The Nigerian military announced Sunday afternoon that they had successfully driven away the insurgents, some of whom arrived in a fleet of buses and overwhelmed a military checkpoint outside of the city center. The attacks, which reportedly began overnight but lasted for many hours, were carried out shortly after Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan left Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, where he was campaigning.
According to a New York Times report, Borno’s governor, Kashim Shettima, said soldiers manning the checkpoint “were completely caught off guard” and hundreds may have been killed.
The militants moved from the first checkpoint to another closer to downtown before the Nigerian military sent warplanes to counter them, officials said. A military curfew forced civilians to stay in their homes, though some managed to escape to suburbs before major roads in and out of the city were blocked off.
The group paired their offensive in Maiduguri with another series of attacks in small towns nearby, where aid groups believe there are even more casualties.
Kerry’s speech in Lagos followed meetings with Jonathan and retired military general Muhammadu Buhari, who will face off in a presidential election on Feb. 14. Kerry’s visit was meant to reiterate U.S. commitment to a successful democracy in Nigeria, which Kerry called “an increasingly important strategic partner” for maintaining regional security and prosperity.
The United States was worried by rumors the elections would be delayed due to increased violence in the country’s north, where up to 2,000 may have been killed in a Boko Haram attack earlier this month. Last week, Jonathan’s national security advisor, Sambo Dasuki, suggested in a speech in London that elections be delayed to ensure all Nigerians, including the displaced, had the opportunity to vote. But Kerry urged Nigeria to keep them as scheduled and said the democratic process is crucial to defeating the terrorist group.
Kerry’s remarks also focused on dispelling claims that relations between the United States and Nigeria have recently become strained. Nigeria abruptly canceled a military training program with the United States in December and Jonathan’s various mouthpieces have weaved a confusing narrative, at times denying the severity of Boko Haram’s advances and otherwise blaming their growing strength on the United States’ refusal to provide the Nigerian military with arms due to past human rights violations.
But Kerry said the two governments continue to share intelligence and collaborate on military practices, including law enforcement and counterterrorism training programs for Nigerian officials. And as Boko Haram’s bloody campaign has only worsened in recent months, Nigeria is increasingly looking for outside support to counter the group.
Kerry said the United States was willing to offer assistance so long as the Nigerian government could ensure fair and accountable presidential elections next month.
“Bottom line, we want to do more,” Kerry said. “But our ability to do more will depend to some degree on the full measure of credibility, accountability, transparency, and peacefulness of this election.”
The Nigerian government has faced international backlash for its inability to counter Boko Haram, whose bloody campaign has left thousands dead and up to a million displaced.
And Amnesty International responded to reports of violence in Maiduguri with a statement Sunday warning that government inaction could put hundreds of thousands of lives at risk and lead to “a disastrous humanitarian crisis.”
This year, scores of soldiers have fled military bases that have come under siege by the terrorist group, saying poor leadership and a lack of supplies have left them with no other choice. But Dasuki also said in his London speech that any soldiers claiming they were poorly armed were lying, and that those who fled their bases were “cowards.”
Boko Haram has mainly financed their offensive by looting the towns they attack and kidnapping foreigners for ransom.
Although Boko Haram has not proven to be an official affiliate of the Islamic State, Kerry warned that ISIS’s spread to different parts of Africa should have Nigeria on high alert.
Last week, neighboring Niger hosted a meeting among representatives from more than a dozen states to discuss a new regional security effort to defeat Boko Haram. But talks of such a security force have been ongoing since last year without any concrete result.
And now, with Boko Haram’s recent advances, Nigeria’s national pride as one of the most powerful countries on the continent risks being overshadowed by the perilousness of its populations in the north.
PHILIP OJISUA/AFP/Getty Images