Boko Haram fighters have captured a multinational military base and a town on the Nigeria-Chad border, according to officials and local residents.
Soldiers and civilians were killed by the Islamist insurgents, reported locals who fled the attack on the town of Baga, in Borno state. Others drowned while trying to escape by crossing Lake Chad, on which the town sits.
Audu Labbo — a fisherman who escaped in a canoe — told AP that the insurgents "came in their hundreds driving several Hilux patrol vehicles, trucks and some were on motorcycles." He also said that they immediately began to throw explosives and bombs.
Maina Maaji Lawan, senator for Borno North, told BBC World Service that the military had abandoned the base, and civilians had run "helter skelter" — "some into the forest, some into the desert."
"We are very dispirited," he said, adding that there was no way to confirm how many casualties there had been.
The base was home to the Multi-National Joint Task Force — comprising of troops from Nigeria, Chad, and Niger — which had previously been credited by the Nigerian government with capturing militants, arms and ammunition. The force was set up in 1998 to fight crime in the Lake Chad border region, but more recently became involved in the fight against Boko Haram.
They represented one of the few visible actions being taken to combat the group, which aims to establish a caliphate in Nigeria's north.
Baga lies around 121 miles north-east of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, and the fall of the town — the last to be held by government forces in the Borno North area — has sparked fears that it could be used as a launchpad for attacks on the city.
Nigerian newspaper T__he Daily Post quoted a Baga resident, Mohammed Sani, who said that he had left his family behind him as he fled the town. "Now that the Boko Haram have taken control of the Multinational Joint Task Force base," Sani opined, "it is now easy for them to do as they wish in the whole of northern Borno."
Sani also claimed that Boko Haram members had been living near his town for a while. "We are fishermen," he said. "We pay task to Boko Haram to remain alive and in business; that is why we did not leave (originally) when people were leaving the area."
Baga has also previously suffered from the actions of the Nigerian military. In early 2013, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that 2,275 homes were destroyed by the military, who conducted a retaliatory raid after Boko Haram killed a Nigerian soldier. Community leaders told HRW that they had counted 183 bodies after the wave of destruction that occurred between 16 and 17 April. In a statement released after the attacks, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan called these actions "most regrettable and unfortunate."
Chris Ngwodo, a political analyst based in Jos, northern Nigeria — a city that experienced a double bombing last month — told VICE News that the capture of the Baga base is noteworthy. "Baga was the last area in northern Borno state under government control, so that region has been completely taken over by Boko Haram at this stage."
Ngwodo said that though it was hard to be certain of Boko Haram's goals, it was not far-fetched to see this gain as part of a move to circle Maiduguri with the hope of eventually launching an attack. "From a purely psychological point of view every inch of territory they get is encouragement," he said. "They believe that they are fighting for a holy cause and for God and so they get a psychological boost."
Ngwodo added that it is not just Nigeria that will be impacted if the group continue to gain territory. "I believe that it is a transnational group in its character and its makeup, and ultimately it will want to create a transitional caliphate because these groups do not subscribe to the idea of states as we know them. It imagines itself as the al-Qaeda in the Sahel."
However, in terms of the impact this development could have on the election outcome, Ngwodo said he believed it was likely to be minimal. He told VICE News that in the south of the country the general perception is that the conflict is at a stasis. Furthermore, he said many citizens in the south believe that those affected in the north are supporting Boko Haram, and have sympathy with their cause.
Speaking to VICE News, John Campbell, a former US ambassador to Nigeria and a senior fellow at US thinktank the Council on Foreign Relations, said that that there was a danger in over-reading into the significance of the base's capture, however. All that was certain so far is that Boko Haram was consolidating its power in Borno state, he added.
Campbell said that there was very little evidence that, in practice, the Baga base contained anything but Nigerian soldiers, and added that reports suggest that those who were there "bolted" without putting up a fight. "I think the danger here is to see the multi-national task force as more structured than it really is."
He also said that Nigerians in the northeast feel neglected by the current government. "The general impression I have is that Nigerians in the north feel squeezed by military abuses on one hand, and Boko Haram abuses in the other — a plague on both your houses as it were."
Campbell pointed out that northern residents who have been internally displaced — and thus are legally unable to vote in February — are also those that would be the most likely to vote for Jonathan's opponents in the upcoming election.
Reports of Boko Haram's almost daily murders and kidnappings take a long time to emerge, in part due to the lack of development in northern Nigeria.
Borno state has experienced an almost continual power outage since June 2014, something that the minister of state for power, Alhaji Mohammed Wakil, announced on Monday was a result of unrest in the area, though he also suggested that "disgruntled forces" were vandalizing power lines as a form of blackmail against the government.
"The Federal Ministry of Power has repeatedly moved to reconnect Maiduguri to national grid but insurgency and sabotage have so far delayed the realization of that goal," Wakil said in a statement.
"In the last seven months when the power lines and sub-station at Damboa were attacked, the ministry through the Transmission Company of Nigeria made at least seven attempts to rectify the problem but on each occasion the officials were attacked."
Reports have previously suggested that Boko Haram have been destroying cellphone masts in the region.
Nigeria's general election is scheduled for February 14, and the outcome is expected to be decided on the issue of security. Current president Jonathan is running for re-election. One of his main competitors is Muhammadu Buhari, a 71-year-old former military general who was deposed from the leadership position in a coup 30 years ago.
At least 1.5 million people displaced by the conflict may be unable to vote.
Main image: a soldier on patrol in Baga in 2013. Image via AFP/Getty
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