Nigeria’s military on Wednesday announced the “massive”deployment of troops to its restive northeast, after the president declared a state of emergency in areas where Islamist insurgents have seized territory.
A separate military source speaking on condition of anonymity told reporters that fighter jets would also be deployed to the region, raising the possibility that Nigeria could carry out air strikes within its own territory.
President Goodluck Jonathan issued the emergency decree in a broadcast late Tuesday, acknowledging for the first time that Boko Haram Islamists had “taken over” parts of Borno state, the insurgents’ stronghold.
“Nigerian Armed Forces ... have commenced operations to rid the nation’s border territories of terrorist bases,” a military statement said.
“The operations which will involve massive deployment of men and resources, is aimed at asserting the nation’s territorial integrity,” it added.
The emergency measures applied to Borno and two neighbouring states, Yobe and Adamawa.
Boko Haram, which says it is fighting to create an Islamic state in Nigeria’s mostly Muslim north, had used Borno’s capital of Maiduguri as a home base, but its fighters have relocated to remote border regions following a crackdown in the city.
The borders with Chad and Niger are porous and analysts say that criminal groups, including weapons dealers, have for years migrated freely between countries.
Nigeria has warned that Boko Haram has increasingly sought ties with like-minded foreign groups, including al-Qaeda’s north African wing and has gained access in recent months to more powerful weapons, some of which have been brought in through unchecked borders.
Brutal clashes between soldiers and Islamist gunmen on April 16 led to the deaths of about 200 people in the town of Baga on Lake Chad, half of which was destroyed by fire during the fighting.
The military said the insurgents fighting in Baga were armed with rocket propelled grenades and heavy machine guns.
On May 7 in the northern Borno town of Bama, Boko Haram gunmen staged coordinated attacks on the military and police killing dozens. They also orchestrated a prison break that freed more than 100 inmates.
They stormed the town in a convoy of seven vehicles armed with heavy weapons, including anti-aircraft ammunition, according to the military.
Jonathan said the Boko Haram violence, which has left thousands dead since 2009, can no longer be treated as “militancy or criminality”.
The latest violence, including the brazen attacks in the northeast, amounted to “a declaration of war”, he said.
Kyari Mohammed, a political science professor at Modibbo Adama University of Science and Technology in Adamawa state, told reporters that military presence in northern Borno had previously been limited, enabling Boko Haram to take control in certain areas.
But, he warned, the expanded military operations set to follow the emergency decree may not solve the problem.
“The deployment will only spread the insurgency instead of containing it,” he said.
Nigeria’s military has been accused of massive rights abuses in campaigns against Boko Haram, with Human Rights Watch saying troops may be guilty of crimes against humanity.
For Mohammed, the emergency decree could pose further problems for civilians in the northeast when the widened military operation takes off.
“Soldiers have been given a blank cheque by the president,” he said, warning of “more rights abuses”.
The Boko Haram conflict is estimated to have cost 3,600 lives since 2009, including killings by the security forces.