PARIS — As the world watched France taken down by an Islamic terrorist attack last week, and followed live coverage of the nation getting back up with Sunday's historic march through Paris, another devastating wave of terrorism did not get quite as much media attention. Reports that Islamist militants from Boko Haram has killed as many as 2,000 in northeast Nigeria since Jan. 3 are only slowly making their way around the globe.
The difficulty of accessing verified information in the remote areas of this bloody conflict may help explain part of why the world has seemed to ignore these killings. But that's not all, and it is noteworthy that we are speaking about Africa's most populous nation, which last year also became its biggest economy. Searching for local and international sources in English, French and German, here's what we know so far about a brutal start to 2015 in Nigeria.
RAIDS ON MILITARY BASE, TOWNS On Jan. 3, hundreds of Boko Haram jihadists in pickup trucks, vans and motorcycles overran a military base in the northeastern town of Baga, in Borno State. The base served as headquarters for the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), a coalition of forces from Nigeria, Niger and Chad, although only Nigerian soldiers were in the base, according to Le Monde. It is not known how many soldiers were killed during the raid but the government troops are reported to have quickly abandoned the base. The Borno National Senator Maina Maaji Lawan told the BBC Boko Haram now controlled 70% of Borno State.
On Jan. 9, the city of Damaturu, in the neighboring state of Yobe, was attacked by Boko Haram, a location they have attempted to raid several times these past few years. It is believed the jihadist group lost around 200 men in the attack and did not succeed in capturing the town.
On Jan. 12, Cameroon's Minister of Communication Issa Tchiroma Bakary announced 143 Boko Haram jihadists had been killed in a raid against a military camp held by Cameroon forces near Kolofata, in the north of the country along the Nigerian border, the Cameroon Tribune reports. One Cameroonian soldier was killed and at least four others were wounded.
The Wednesday edition of the Nigerian newspaper Daily Post reports Boko Haram insurgents were being turned back by government soldiers in Biu town, in Borno State. A witness said the town’s youth was also being mobilized to fight the jihadist group in case the military was overpowered. A local resident told the Nigerian daily Premium Times “Our boys have already taken strategic position waiting for them, at the moment, the soldiers are battling them. All we can hear now are gunshots from the direction of the barracks.”
CONFLICTING DEATH TOLLS The Boko Haram militants raided the city of Baga as well as at least 16 neighboring towns, carrying out systematic mass killings until at least Jan. 7. The number of civilians killed varies between 150 — a figure put forward by the Nigerian Ministry of Defense Monday, the Nigerian daily Punch reports — and a dramatic 2,000, according to Amnesty International. The organization described the massacre as possibly the “deadliest in Boko Haram’s history,” in this conflict that started in 2009 in the region. Amnesty called on the Nigerian government to investigate and take action regarding the terrorist group. A senior government official in the area told the BBC that Baga, where 10,000 formerly lived, was now "virtually non-existent."
In the days following the attacks, the high figure of 2,000 killed was put in doubt as it appeared to be solely based on claims, first reported by the BBC, by the government official Musa Buka, from the town of Kukawa, even though Buka was not present in Baga during the raids. Still, as Business Insider reports, the conflict in Nigeria and in the region is undoubtedly one of the deadliest in the world. At least 6,000 were killed in 2014 and around 10,500 since the beginning of 2011.
In a press conference Monday Maj. Gen. Chris Olukolade, a spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, said “this is no time to debate about casualty figures, as the life of any Nigerian is important. As much as drawing attention to the atrocities being committed by terrorists group in Nigeria is most welcome, the need for factual presentation of the situation is equally vital.”
SCARCE TESTIMONIES Rare survivors of the massacre converged into neighboring towns such as Maiduguri, more than 200 kilometers away, where they arrived only several days later. Around 20,000 people were also reported to have crossed Lake Chad and arrived on the other side of the shore, in Chad, according to Le Monde. But large numbers of people, including Nigerian soldiers, were reported to have drowned in the lake. Hundreds are also allegedly stranded on islands of the lake, without food, water or shelter and exposed to the cold and mosquitoes. Testimonies of the massacre are slowly emerging.
The Guardian reports a man who lived on the shore of Lake Chad hid for three days between a wall and his neighbors’ house while insurgents raided the town on Jan. 3. “People fled into the bush while some shut themselves indoors,” he said. The Boko Haram terrorists also “pursued fleeing residents into the bush, shooting them dead.” The man adds he “kept stepping on dead bodies” for five kilometers as he later fled to the village of Malam Karanti, “which was also deserted and burnt.”
A cleric from Baga told Daily Trust the town was “gone” and “everything is in shreds. I don’t think the insurgents would have the courage to remain there themselves because there is no life in Baga. Houses, roadside shops, vehicles, sources of water and anything you can think of have been destroyed,” he added.
According to Paris-based weekly Le Nouvel Observateur, a man who entered the town Monday said it was still occupied by Boko Haram: “The insurgents have set up barricades in the strategic points of the town. There are bodies everywhere. The whole town reeks of decaying corpses.”
AT LEAST 20,000 DISPLACED According to the United Nations, around 20,000 people have now fled to neighboring Chad, Niger and Cameroon in the past two weeks, the quadruple of previous figures that followed similar attacks. Karl Steinacker, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees country representative in Niger, said "we are preparing for things getting much worse, not better.” Altogether, around 200,000 people have fled Nigeria since the conflict began, Reuters reports.
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Few newspapers featured the Nigerian massacre — overshadowed by the terrorist attacks in France — as their front page this past week. On Tuesday, the South African daily The Star was one of them — Front page via Kiosko
SCHOOLGIRLS USED AS SUICIDE BOMBERS A girl aged around 10 years old killed at least 20 people and wounded many others Saturday in a suicide attack in a crowded market in Maiduguri, Die Welt reports. The following day, bombs hidden on two other young girls detonated in another market in Potiskum, in Yobe State, killing 5, including the girls, and injuring more than 40. The New York Times described such attacks as a “new tactic” in the Islamist group’s terror campaign. “The terrorist group has increasingly employed women as suicide bombers, even as it has stepped up its abductions of girls across northeast Nigeria, including the kidnapping of more than 200 in the town of Chibok last April,” the daily wrote.
THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION FACTOR The Nigerian presidential and legislative elections set to be held on February 14 and which pits President Goodluck Jonathan and his leading challenger Muhammadu Buhari, could have played a role in the increase of attacks by Boko Haram these past two weeks, the Nigerian daily P.M. News reports. But the U.S. State Department urged Nigeria not to postpone the elections despite horrific violence in the northeast of the country. "Boko Haram has tended to, particularly around something like an election, use political issues or sensitivities to try to enflame tensions," Reuters quoted the State Department Marie Harf as saying. "We have seen that as one of their tactics and that is why it is so important to move forward with the election, because we believe it’s important."
General Buhari, the candidate for the All Progressives Congress and President Jonathan’s main opponent, has pledged his government would secure Nigeria against “all threats,” the Nigerian daily Vanguard reports. As for Goodluck Jonathan, who launched his presidential campaign last week, he is facing heavy criticism for the government’s lack of communication and information about the massacre in Borno State.