A wave of bomb attacks bearing the hallmarks of Boko Haram hit Nigeria on Tuesday, as the international community struggled to come up with an effective strategy to combat the Islamist terror group increasingly striking beyond its self-declared caliphate in the country's north-east.
At least eight people reportedly died when three bomb blasts shook a military checkpoint in Biu, northeastern Nigeria. A security source told Reuters that another 17 people, said to be the attackers, had been killed when soldiers fired on them in response.
A suicide attack also hit the north-eastern town of Potiskum on Tuesday. A resident told VICE News that he heard a bomb blast at about 4.30pm local time, and shortly afterwards saw an ambulance rush past him. The suicide bomb was reportedly detonated in a restaurant, and resulted in at least two fatalities.
Niger police announced on Tuesday that authorities had arrested 160 suspected Boko Haram militants over the previous two days. The arrests took place in Diffa, close to the Nigerian border. Police spokesperson Adil Doro named one of the detained as Kaka Bunu, who he said had participated in recruiting for the insurgent group.
Thousands also took to the streets of Niger's capital city Niamey, in a demonstration against Boko Haram that was led by the country's prime minister Brigi Rafini.
The protests had a heavy police presence, and came to a halt at the city's parliament building. Addressing the crowd, the country's president Mamahadou Issoufou announced that "Niger will be the tomb" of the insurgents.
Tuesday's developments came a day after presidents from 10-nation group the Economic Community of African States (CEEAC) held an extraordinary meeting in Yaoundé, Cameroon's capital, where they agreed to create an $87 million emergency fund to fight the group.
President Ali Bongo of Gabon later took to Twitter to announce the creation of the fund. "Like all my colleagues here, I condemn the attacks and abuses committed by the terrorist group Boko Haram," he said.
On Monday, Chad launched drills and a counterterrorism exercise with support from the US, which they billed as a warm-up for an offensive against Boko Haram. At least 1,300 soldiers from 28 African and Western countries participated, according to Reuters. The maneuvers — named "Flintlock" — began in 2005 in an attempt to improve cross-border cooperation along the Sahel belt. They occur annually, and include participants from Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia.
The same day, Boko Haram reportedly attacked a Cameroon military camp in the country's north, near the town of Waza, prompting a backlash from Cameroonian troops. Speaking in Maroua, a town close to where Lake Chad where Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon meet, Colonel Didier Badjeck said that the final tally after the counterassault was: "Five soldiers killed, seven wounded and over 80 Boko Haram assailants killed in the waves of attacks."
Military spokesperson Colonel Joseph Nouma told AFP that a further 1,000 suspected Boko Haram militants had been taken into custody.
On Sunday, a female suicide bomber blew herself up in an attack in Damaturu, northeastern Nigeria. Police said 10 were killed, while another 30 were injured. While the bombing is similar to many instigated by Boko Haram, the group did not immediately claim responsibility.
Meanwhile, the Nigerian military claim that — backed by airstrikes — they have recaptured two towns that had been under Boko Haram control. These are Monguno and Marte, both located close to Lake Chad.
"The air and land operation is continuing with aggressive advance towards other designated communities and locations meant to be cleared in the ongoing offensive against the terrorists," defense spokesman Major General Chris Olukolade said.
Local newspaper the Premium Times reported that the towns were reclaimed after nearly two days of fighting. They are located in Borno State, about 85 miles from the state capital, Maiduguri.
However, while some gains are being made, there has been criticism of the lack of cohesion between the countries.
John Campbell, a former US ambassador to Nigeria, told VICE News that the majority of the current efforts are defensive rather than offensive. "It is a response to Boko Haram activity, as opposed to being a coherent effort to wipe out Boko Haram," Campbell said.
"Coordination is extremely difficult in the best of circumstances," he added. "In one of the poorest regions in the world where there is a fundamental division between Francophone countries — what Chad, Cameroon, and Niger are — and Anglophone — Nigeria — it's intrinsically difficult. Relations between Nigeria and their neighbours, while cordial, have never been intrinsically warm."
He added that the resources available to the three Francophone states was quite limited because of their size. "They're very weak states," Campbell said.
The former ambassador said that he thinks the CEEAC emergency fund was a "political gesture" which shows solidarity from regional states, but that the amount of money wouldn't have a huge amount of impact on the ground.
In order to eliminate the threat in any ongoing way, Campbell told VICE News he believed that a new "counterinsurgency strategy" would need to be decided on. "A whole new rethink that seeks to address the deep and longstanding grievances of the region" would be necessary, he said, but that would take money and time, and the main resources would have to come from Nigeria.
The UN refugee agency UNHCR estimates that at least 1.5 million people have been displaced by the crisis — and the number is constantly increasing. More than 90 percent of the internally displaced in Nigeria are currently living on the kindness of friends, family, or strangers, rather than being housed in government-run camps. Others have fled the country, relocating to neighboring Niger, or traveling even further afield.
On Saturday, President Goodluck Jonathan and Vice President Namadi Sambohosted a Valentine's Day dinner for the widows and children of soldiers who had died fighting Boko Haram, according to local media.
Meanwhile, the Nigerian military, which is under increasing pressure over its failure to effectively combat Boko Haram, has been sparring with media it claims are misrepresenting its efforts. Its ire was most recently directed at CNN, whom it accused of engaging in "orchestrated blackmail and propaganda."
In an interview with BBC World Service, Nigerian noble laureate Wole Soyinka said he had strong doubts whether Nigeria would maintain control of its current territory over the next decade. He also said it was important that those combating Boko Haram recognize the range of factors influencing the militants.
"Marginalization and poverty provides the foot soldiers," Soyinka said, but added that that is not the motivation of the commanders. "They want to form caliphates, they want to Islamize," he said, "and not just Islamize but their own narrow, distorted, and perverted reading of Islam."
However, Soyinka said that "weapons of the mind" could still prove useful in the fight to destabilize the militant group. "Not all members of Boko Haram are convinced. Many have no choice, they have to be there," he said. "All kind of propaganda leaflets should have been raining in those areas."
The Nigerian presidential election — scheduled for February 14 — was postponed for six weeks, after the military announced that it needed to conserve resources in order to go on the offensive against the threat in the north.
However, Boko Haram isn't the only threat to Nigerian civilians, given that violence around election time is common, and often results in fatalities.
On Tuesday, gunfire and explosions disrupted an APC rally in Okrika, Rivers State, southern Nigeria, where there have also been allegations that local police have refused to protect the public during APC political gatherings. Okrika is the hometown of president Jonathan's wife Patience.
Opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) Governor Rotimi Amaechi wasn't present at the rally, but told Reuters that he blamed Jonathan's PDP party for the disruption. "It is intimidation. They don't want people to come out and vote because they know they'll lose," he said.
Meanwhile, Rivers State PDP spokesman Emmanuel Okah said the outbreak of violence was a clash between rival "cultists," referring to Nigerian university criminal gangs who engage in occult rituals.
More than 1,000 people were killed during the 2011 elections, while at least 58 people have died since December in attacks believed to be related to the upcoming vote.
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