ABUJA, Nigeria — The bloodshed unleashed by armed group Boko Haram on Baga, Nigeria, where hundreds of people, if not more, were killed, has raised worrying questions about the military’s continued inability to stop the armed fighters controlling swaths of Nigeria's northeast.
Last weekend's attack on Baga — a strategically located market town that has suffered violence at the hands of both Boko Haram and, according to rights groups, Nigeria’s armed forces — proceeded like many others carried out by the extremist group Boko Haram in its over five-year-long insurgency.
The fighters burned the villages outside Baga before striking the town itself. On Saturday, the Nigerian soldiers stationed at a key multinational military base outside Baga were overrun and the town was torched. Hundreds or even thousands of people were killed in the attacks.
Since 2009, Boko Haram has used bombs, guns and kidnappings to further its goal of imposing its version of strict Islamic law in northeastern Nigeria.
While attacking a market town was nothing new for the group, many of the people who survived the attack reported a death toll far beyond anything the group inflicted before.
Amnesty International says as many as 2,000 people may have been killed. The Nigerian military insists only 150 people died. Local politicians have reported death tolls in the hundreds. Journalists and aid workers haven’t been able to access the town.
While the death toll remains uncertain, that Nigeria’s military was once again routed on its own soil was no surprise; the military has repeatedly been bested by Boko Haram since 2009, when the group escalated attacks on villages, towns and cities in the northeast.
Despite being among Africa’s largest militaries and having played important roles in peacekeeping missions during civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia, Nigeria’s armed forces have been unable to stop Boko Haram, which now has assumed complete control of some parts of the northeastern states of Adamawa and Borno.
“There’s so many issues,” said Alkasim Abdulkadir, a Nigerian freelance journalist and security analyst, citing the lack of a unified command structure, poor equipment, low morale and allegations of corruption among commanders as key reasons behind the military’s failures.
On the military’s official blog, defense spokesman Maj. Gen. Chris Olukolade said 150 people died in the attack on Baga and that the military was mobilizing to retake the town. He declined to answer questions.
Military leaders’ proclamations of impending victory over Boko Haram have been at odds with the behavior of their soldiers. Dozens have faced courts-martials in the recent months for disobeying orders and, in one instance, firing on a commanding officer. Some have been handed death sentences.
In December online news outlet SaharaReporters published a letter from an army commander stationed in Borno, which encompasses Baga, saying that his men were underequipped and that high-ranking military officials were bilking the country of money meant to fight the war.
Complaints of a lack of equipment are nothing new for the military. In November, Nigeria’s ambassador to the U.S., Adebowale Ibidapo Adefuye, accused the Washington of refusing to sell Nigeria weaponry that would give it an edge over the fighters.
While the U.S. military has acknowledged training Nigerian troops and providing nonlethal aid, an April 2013 incident in Baga continues to hang over Nigeria’s military. Human Rights Watch said that Nigerian soldiers rampaged through the town after Boko Haram killed one of their men, burning 2,000 homes and killing 183 people.
The next month, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, who is seeking re-election in a few weeks, declared a state of emergency in three northeastern states, sending in troops and giving them expanded powers to fight the insurgents.
But the troop surge wasn’t enough, nor are their tactics suitable for countering the well-armed fighters, who carry out guerrilla-style attacks in the northeast, said Andrew Noakes, coordinator of research group the Nigeria Security Network, which investigates insecurity in the country.
To carry out a counterinsurgency campaign, he said, Nigeria needs to send about 200,000 soldiers and police to the northeast as well as refrain from the type of rights abuses they were accused of in Baga. Right now, he estimates, there are only 30,000 to 40,000 troops fighting Boko Haram.
“The Nigerian army does not have sufficient armies deployed in the northeast of Nigeria to protect the civilian population,” Noakes said. “They’re not able to put enough soldiers on the ground in places like Baga.”
Meanwhile, the military’s strength has ebbed in the past few decades as the balance of state power in Nigeria has shifted from military generals to elected politicians.
Much of Nigeria’s early decades after its 1960 independence were consumed by military coups and countercoups. Since the restoration of democracy in 1999, leaders have found it necessary to starve the military as a way to protect their power, according to Bawa Abdullahi Wase, a security analyst and expert on Boko Haram.
“For the past 14 years, the Nigerian security has been underfunded. For the same past 14 years, they have been under-manpowered. For the past 14 years, they have really been without weaponry,” Wase said.
That Baga was targeted for such a thorough and brutal attack — survivors told of escaping in canoes across nearby Lake Chad — may be a consequence of the military’s inability to protect civilians in the northeast.
As the insurgency worsened, vigilante groups known as the Civilian Joint Task Force began forming across Borno. The civilian force in Baga was particularly effective, Abdulkadir said, and Boko Haram may have intended to send a message by wiping it out.
“I see it as part of a growing trend. The insurgents are getting more emboldened by the day,” he said. “Excepting if the Nigerian army changes its strategy, I see them replicating this attack in other parts of the northeast.”