There's a week to go until Nigeria's long-anticipated elections, and President Goodluck Jonathan has raised the level of optimism in his election rhetoric — by saying that Boko Haram could be completely wiped out within a month.
In conjunction with forces from Chad, Niger, and Cameroon, the Nigerian military claims to have retaken 11 districts from the Islamist group. In an interview broadcast on Friday, Jonathan told the BBC that Boko Haram "are getting weaker and weaker by the day. I am very hopeful that it will not take us more than a month to recover all the territories that have been in their hands."
But his forecast came as further reports of gross brutality by the group continued to emerge. On Friday, troops from Niger spoke about the discovery of a mass grave in the northern Nigerian town of Damasak. A source told Reuters that the grave was near a bridge and appeared to contain the bodies of at least 70 Boko Haram victims — some of whom had been beheaded.
Also this week, dozens of women who had been forced to marry Boko Haram militants were reportedly slaughtered by their "husbands." The militants apparently feared that if they were killed during the battle, the women would marry "infidels."
Boko Haram issued a pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State on March 7, which was accepted with enthusiasm.
An Islamic State spokesperson, believed to be Mohammed al-Adnani, announced "the good news of the expansion of the caliphate to West Africa" in an audio message, after which he encouraged more Muslims in the region to join militant Islamist groups.
The Nigerian election is set to be one of the most closely fought since the end of the military rule in 1999. Muhammadu Buhari of the APC party, a Fulani Muslim from the country's north, is the strongest rival to Jonathan, a Christian of the PDP.
One of the divisive issues has been the security crisis in the northeast.
Jonathan, who has drawn strong domestic and international criticism for his government's failures against Boko Haram, acknowledged to the BBC that the Nigerian response to the group had been too slow. "We never expected that [Boko Haram] will build up that kind of capacity. We under-rated their external influence. Since after the civil war we've not fought any war, we don't manufacture weapons, so we had to look for help to re-equip our army and the air force."
He added: "Whatever goes wrong, I accept it. Whatever goes right, I take the glory. So I am not shifting blame."
Despite his prediction of imminent victory, he said that he expected many of the militants would manage to escape. "They have a lot of linkages. The whole of West Africa, into Central Africa, going to North Africa; it's a free world for them."
Others, he said, might "even sneak back to reintegrate into the civilian population, because they are Nigerians."
Major international attention was drawn to Nigeria when 276 girls were abducted from their school in Chibok village in April last year. This led to the "Bring Back Our Girls" campaign, which forced the government to admit that the kidnapping had occurred. However, nearly a year later, little progress has been made towards pinning down the missing girls' whereabouts.
On Tuesday, Chief of Army Staff Lieutenant General Kenneth Minimah said that the army had asked for information about the Chibok girls in all "liberated" areas, but so far have found no evidence that the girls had even passed through.
Jonathan also said that the question was at the forefront of his mind. "We ask that question every day," he said. "We have not seen dead girls. That is good news. So I believe they are still alive. I believe we will get them. I can't tell you where they are. We are suspecting that they may be in Sambisa Forest, but one cannot say categorically," he said, referring to a former game reserve in Borno state.
In February, former Nigerian president and military ruler Olusegun Obasanjo told VICE News that Boko Haram could only have flourished in the way they did as a result of "inadequate action" by the Nigerian leadership. The former Jonathan supporter added: "I have always maintained that with Boko Haram, it doesn't matter what you do, at the end of the day it will require stick and carrot. And if you only use stick, you are postponing or you are suppressing, you are not dealing with the situation's stem and branches."
The election was originally scheduled to be held on February 14 but was postponed for six weeks amid deteriorating security to allow an offensive against Boko Haram.
Manji Cheto, a risk analyst who focuses on the political economy of West Africa, told VICE News that she believes the vote will now go ahead, and that Buhari will win unless electoral fraud plays a large role.
"There's already quite a bit of concern around electoral fraud and irregularity that is largely driven by reports here and there across the country," she said, adding that particular concerns had been raised around the newly issued biometric voting cards. "I think on polling day it is very possible that election monitors could actually look at what happens and actually declare the election free and fair," Cheto added, "but I think a lot of the manipulation is happening in the lead up to the actual polling day, which for me I think is worrying."
Cheto noted that while Buhari has lost three elections before, his prospects look much brighter, as this year marks the first time he has received major support from the southwest.
She also dismissed Jonathan's comments about the likelihood of Boko Haram being defeated within a month as pre-election posturing. "We are only at the beginning of what is going to be a very long counter-insurgency period. This is only one step in that process, so the word 'success' has a lot of caveats," she said.
However, she said that the gains in the northeast have been sufficient to remove any possible security justification for delaying the vote again. "At this point there's no real credible reason why they could shift the elections," she said.
The Nigerian economy has also been taking a hit, and as the cost of currency and oil prices plummet, Nigerian citizens are feeling the impact. In his recently released book The Looting Machine, Financial Times journalist Tom Burgis notes that 62 percent of Nigerians already live on less than $1.25 a day. He goes on to say: "Nigeria may be the largest source of African energy exports, but it generates only enough electricity to power one toaster for every 44 of its own people." The poverty rate is particularly high in the north.
Leaders from Central and West African states have announced that they will hold a summit to discuss further collaboration in tackling Boko Haram from April 7-8. Chadian president Idriss Deby said: ""Single-handedly, no country can overcome this threat and therefore through pooling our resources together… we are going to overcome this challenge."
The involvement of other countries has been embarrassing for the Nigerian army, who have increasingly turned to press releases and social media to emphasize their key role in the offensive, posting messages which swerve from optimistic to defiant and confrontational.
Estimates for the number of refugees and internally displaced people forced from their homes by Boko Haram have hit as high as 1.5 million — a figure that also represents the number of citizens who won't be able to vote in the upcoming election because of their displacement.
In January, Sarah Ndikumana, the Nigeria country director for the International Rescue Committee, told VICE News that "outside Ebola this is the only acute emergency crisis that's happening in West Africa," but comparatively little attention was being paid to the refugee situation.
Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd