The military in Nigeria is scrambling to stop Boko Haram, Islamic insurgents who are aligned with the terrorist group ISIS, from expanding its territory in the northwestern state of Niger, which is already contending with criminal gangs known locally as “bandits,” according to media reports.
Gov. Sani Bello of Niger State has called for an immediate counterattack by the army to dislodge “elements of Boko Haram” that have displaced 3,000 citizens during the past week.
“I just heard that they have already placed their flag in Kauri, which means they have taken the territory, and this is what we have been engaging the federal government with, and unfortunately it has now gotten to this stage that if care is not taken, nobody is safe, not even Abuja is safe,” Bello told reporters on April 26 at a camp for internally displaced people about 28 miles west of the state capital of Minna.
“Wives have been seized and forcefully attached to Boko Haram members. They are claiming it as their territory and will use it just as they have used Sambisa Forest,” he said, referring to the vast, arid bushland in the northeastern part of the country, which Boko Haram terrorists have used as a hideout for 11 years.
“Yet, Sambisa Forest is hundreds of kilometers away, whereas Shiroro is just two hours’ drive from Abuja [the nation’s capital]. Even Abuja is not safe,” he told a TV crew from Channels TV.
While the governor understated the driving distance, he raised a valid concern about the nation’s security, said Luka Binniyat, an independent reporter in Kaduna who has worked in Niger State.
“Kauri is about 200 kilometers [124 miles] from Abuja, but due to the rough nature of the road, it takes nothing less than four hours to get to Abuja,” Binniyat told The Epoch Times in an email.
“That stretch passes through a continuous wilderness that crosses the Shiroro gorge, traversing thousands of hectares of savannah, forests, and streams down to Chikun Local Governance area of Kaduna state.”
Binniyat has begun mapping the areas of western Kaduna that have witnessed invasions of bandits and herders and displacement of Christian farmers.
“Already 12 major communities, chiefly Christian ethnic groups that form Chikun LGA [local government area, an administrative unit similar to an American county] have been displaced. If the outlaws are truly Boko Haram as the governor said, they may be occupying a landmass close to the size of Abia State,” he said. Nigeria’s Abia State is approximately half the area of Connecticut.
“The so-called Sambisa ‘Forest’ of Borno State is not a forest in the real sense. It is a vast area of maybe 2,000 square kilometers [about 700 square miles] of scrubland dotted with thorn trees. There is no forest anywhere in Sambisa. Its valleys are dry throughout the dry season.
“Its most strategic advantage to Boko Haram is that Sambisa borders the Nigerian side of the treacherous mountain border with Cameroon. But its newly acquired territory in Niger and neighboring Kaduna state holds even better prospects for the terror group.
“The Shiroro-Chikun stretch is part of the forest Savannah with tall-canopied evergreen trees. It is served by perennial streams lined with thick forests. The numerous hills hold caves for hidden bases. Besides that, the great Kaduna river flows through the area, giving insurgents the advantage of using boats. It’s a frightening prospect.”
The relocation and establishment of Boko Haram units allied with AK47-armed bandit gangs on motorcycles could be a “kinetic game-changer,” according to David Otto, a London-based counterterrorism and defense consultant and an expert on Boko Haram.
“There is an established Boko Haram unit in Niger state,” Otto told The Epoch Times. “This is extremely serious and poses a direct and imminent threat to the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja.
“It is also perhaps a third phase of Boko Haram. What we don’t know yet is whether it’s linked to the Boko Haram faction of Abubakar Shekau or Islamic State of West Africa (ISWAP) or a new and independent faction. What is certain is that this jihadist group has set up shop too close for comfort to the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja—a concern not only for Nigeria but every entity that has a dog in the Nigerian territory small or big.”
The incursion of Boko Haram elements followed military setbacks against armed bandit gangs in the state three weeks ago, when the army lost seven soldiers in clashes. Many of the radicalized bandits are committed to jihad, as is the Boko Haram insurgency that has aligned itself with the ISIS group.
Meanwhile, a violent insurrection against the military authority in the verdant state of Benue in south-central Nigeria left 12 soldiers dead on April 5 and sparked a punitive campaign against a local militia that continues.
While the Nigerian soldiers entered the state to end a clash between rival tribes, a local armed group dubbed the “Bonta Boys” has been blamed for ambushing the army unit, executing all, and burning their corpses afterward, according to military spokesmen.
Since April 6, the Nigerian military has burned and bulldozed its way across dozens of villages that are home to the Tiv ethnicity, giving rise to a fog of competing narratives as to what is really happening.
Otto said Nigerian authorities are juggling multiple security challenges: a new arena of Boko Haram insurgency, a tribal insurrection in its Middle Belt, and rolling banditry in 14 states.
The fight against trans-regional terrorism sustained a setback one week ago, as Chad President Idriss Deby died after a battle with rebels. Deby, the authoritarian president of Chad for 30 years, was a key ally against ISIS insurgents and their allies in the region.
“It stretches the state security architecture to an unimaginable level,” Otto said. “With Idriss Deby out of the picture, Chad is in chaos; the Niger Republic is in tatters as the new administration struggles to survive. Cameroon is in trouble in its northwest and southwest.
“All of which means Nigeria will have to think outside of the box to address its multiple threats, including a new jihadist group that has popped up just next door to the capital of the world’s most populous black nation.
“An effective counter-strategy must begin by going back to the drawing board for the design of a comprehensive and robust Nigerian national security strategy.”