Islamist Fighters Step Up Attacks With Nigerian Vote Looming

(Bloomberg) -- Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s early gains against the Islamist-militant movement Boko Haram are fading as a faction affiliated with Islamic State intensifies its attacks, clouding his campaign for re-election in February.

The jihadists hit military bases last month in several northeastern towns including Gudumbali, once a showcase of Buhari’s success since taking office in 2015. The scale and precision of the assaults signaled the growing strength of Islamic State West Africa Province, an offshoot of Boko Haram that’s emerged as the dominant militant force in the region.

“Rather than the rag-tag army they’re portrayed as, this group is ideological so their fighters are ready to die,” said Idayat Hassan of the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy and Development. “They also have the backing of the global jihadi movement, with reports of several foreign nationals sighted in their camps.”

Islamist Fighters Step Up Attacks With Nigerian Vote Looming

Modu Kolo, a 50-year-old farmer, said he and dozens of other civilians fled their homes on Sept. 8 when the militants overran the army base in Gudumbali in the late afternoon and remained there until 2 a.m. the next day before withdrawing. During the month, the jihadists also attacked military bases at Zari, near the border with Niger, and Baga, close to Lake Chad.

Military Protection

The raid on Gudumbali prompted army chief Tukur Buratai to visit on Sept. 20 and encourage skeptical residents that the military would protect them so they could stay.

“With the coming of the chief of army staff now, we believe this town would be fortified and there would be no need for us to flee,” Kolo told reporters during Buratai’s visit. “The only problem we have now is that our market has been closed by the military and we are denied free movement.”

Islamist-militant groups in West Africa allied to al-Qaeda and Islamic State have also struck Mali, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and Niger and engaged United Nations and French military forces.

While the Nigerian military under Buhari pushed the militants out of territory they’d long occupied, the group seeking to impose its version of Islamic law on Africa’s most populous nation has survived by adopting guerrilla tactics and hitting the military on its own terms.

Very active in the area around Lake Chad and the Niger border, they mount large-scale attacks in the peak of the wet season between July and September, breaking up again into smaller units once the dry season sets in, Hassan said.

Most of the attacks are being credited to the Islamic State West Africa Province, according to Nnamdi Obasi of the International Crisis Group and Hassan. This group, led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi, the son of Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf, has broken with the Abubakar Shekau-led faction that has become even more weakened by the split and assaults by the army.

“The fact that some of the recent attacks specifically targeted military bases shows they were deliberate, not opportunistic, and obviously a sign of renewed strength,” Obasi said.

Islamist Fighters Step Up Attacks With Nigerian Vote Looming

Payments of ransom for hostages have helped fund weapons purchases, and the backing of the global jihadi movement has boosted the morale of the fighters. The decision to execute a Red Cross midwife held hostage for six months in a video released Sept. 17 further cements “their alignment to the tactics of the global jihadi group,” Hassan said. Two other workers from the International Committee of the Red Cross, a midwife and a nurse, remain missing since the attack on the town of Rann in March.

Islamist Fighters Step Up Attacks With Nigerian Vote Looming

Among government troops in the region, there’s growing evidence of low morale, with soldiers complaining of poor conditions and long tours of duty. The conflict is in its ninth year.

Some civil society groups have accused the military of not making full disclosures of its casualties, while the army, in turn, has denounced what it calls negative reports meant to sap the morale of troops.

Buhari, a former military ruler who’s touted his success against the militants in his campaign for re-election, addressed the issue in his Independence Day speech on Monday.

“I am looking into all reported cases of inadequacies in relation to their entitlements, their welfare and those of their families,” he said.

For civilians caught up in the violence, the nightmare continues. More than 800,000 people remain cut off from aid in Borno state, according to UN estimates. Those in areas such as Gudumbali live with the fear of not knowing when the next attack will happen or when they can return to a normal life.

“We are appealing to the military to open up our market and the road so that we can have access to civilization and get goods from Maiduguri,” Kolo said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.