Suicide bombings that killed 58 at a camp for those who fled Boko Haram have raised doubts about the true extent of Nigeria’s grip on security in the troubled northeast and its policy of returning the displaced.
President Muhammadu Buhari and his government have said many of the estimated two million internally displaced people (IDPs) can begin to return, as the military now has the upper hand.
But Tuesday’s attack on Dikwa, some 90 kilometres (55 miles) from the Borno state capital Maiduguri, has called into question whether it is safe to go back — or even stay put.
Last month, suicide bombers tried but failed to get into one of the largest camps near Maiduguri after an attack nearby that killed 85.
Yan St-Pierre, of the Modern Security Consulting Group, said such attacks had become a growing trend since November last year.
“These were mostly assaults but by bombing a camp, they can instill more terror and complicate matters even more for the refugees and the government,” he told AFP.
– ‘Significant’ fighting –
Attention switched to the return of the IDPs in December when Buhari, who had promised a swift end to the insurgency, said the Islamists had been “technically” defeated.
The state government in Borno — the worst affected by the violence — has said it intended to return some 50,000 of the nearly 150,000 people sheltered in camps in and around Maiduguri this month.
But travel outside Maiduguri is not advised without military escort and one Borno senator last week claimed the Islamists still controlled half of the local government areas in the state.
The government denied the claim.
Security analyst Fulan Nasrullah described the return policy as “premature and very ill-thought out… based on a flawed perception of the situation.. (by) politicians in Abuja”.
“The state is still facing fighting of a significant manner in many places,” he added.
IDPs in Maiduguri have told AFP they were reluctant to return home because of the continued presence of Boko Haram as well as a chronic lack of food, shelter and infrastructure.
The situation has echoes of 2013, when a state of emergency in three northeast states saw Boko Haram forced into the remote countryside.
The overstretched and under-funded military were unable — and often unwilling — to secure the bush and Boko Haram returned stronger in 2014, capturing swathes of territory.
Nigeria’s defence minister, Mansur Dan Ali, on Thursday said the police and civil defence corps were expected to “hold ground in the freed areas” of the northeast.
“This will enable the troops to concentrate in advancing into more areas of operation without being distracted by the responsibility of maintaining law and order in the liberated areas,” he added.
But Nasrullah said the police were “not trained to fight wars” and after at least 17,000 deaths in nearly seven years, civilians could again pay a heavy price.
“The Nigerian Police Force cannot sensibly be expected to use its lighter weapons and its inadequate training to hold off the insurgents when they attack,” he added.
– Regional force –
One possible solution to improve security could be the use of the Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF), comprising soldiers from Nigeria and its neighbours Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Benin.
But despite an intended deployment date of November 2014, later revised to July 30 last year, the 8,700 troops in the new African Union-backed, Nigeria-led force are still not yet operational.
Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon fought in an ad hoc coalition early last year but with little apparent coordination and visible tensions.
St-Pierre said “issues of prestige, power and sovereignty” were holding up the deployment: “Who is allowed to do what and when? Who gets to claim credit for the success?
“And more importantly, just how deep into Nigerian territory are MNJTF troops allowed to go?”
Until a common strategy and operational structure was developed, the force remained “a joint operation on paper only”, he added.
Nasrullah suggested the stumbling block was the neighbours’ view of Boko Haram as “a Nigerian problem”, despite multiple cross-border attacks and its alliance to the Islamic State group.
“The Nigeriens and the Cameroonians want Boko Haram to be pushed back into Nigeria. Beyond that, they have no interest in defeating Boko Haram,” he said.
Africa security analyst Ryan Cummings argued recent pledges at the African Union of $250 million (221 million euros) to fight Boko Haram with little mention of the MNJTF “may suggest the initiative is dead in the water”.