By Prince Charles Dickson
This is the first report of a four – part series on the insurgency ravaging North eastern Nigeria
It felt like being led to the firing squad. It was the second day of a suicidal foray into the heart of Boko Haram territory in search for its seemingly invisible leader, Abubakar Shekau.
Our reporter’s tortuous journey started long before the recent news that Shekau or, at least, somebody posing as him, had been killed in a fierce battle between Nigerian troops and Boko Haram insurgents in Konduga, a town situated some 40 kilometres from Maiduguri, the Borno State capital.
The negotiations had been intense and delicate. It went on for weeks. But after an almost interminable wait, the reporter had been summoned. On this journey to the unknown, he and his contact were blindfolded with black bands as they drove for almost an hour, changing cars twice before stopping.
Their blindfolds were removed to reveal that they had stopped in front of a compound but before they could look around or gather their thoughts, they were herded into the building, a bungalow made of bricks and dirty mud. Much later our contact said the location was somewhere around Banki and Miyanti, an area where the group often had clashes with the military.
The party was led into a house where they were met with a man who told them apologetically that they could not see Shekau. Before the news sank in, the man in a small feminine voice added that we would, however, be able to see a top commander of the Boko Haram sect.
A man clad in white and wearing an unruly beard came out of one of the rooms clutching a MacBook Laptop. In his late 30s, he is apparently a man of few words. He offers no greetings but with a nod of the head invited the party to seat on the floor.
He shows footage of a lean Shekau in a white cap and white kaftan. He is preaching. On hearing his voice on the laptop, more men strolled into the room. All grinning and eager to hear his voice, it was obvious they loved and dreaded the man, with equal measure.
Quickly the man in white takes a swipe at the laptop pad and on comes a more recent clip of a somewhat well fed Shekau, in full combat camouflage.
“That is the eve of one of our attacks,” we are told. “He is giving a speech to us,” our host offered further. But he would not disclose which particular attack this was
On the eve of the insurgents’ many attacks, we gathered, the fighting men get a dose of the tonic of Shekau’s sermon urging them on, justifying their killing sprees.
Momentarily, the reporter, still feigning attention, sneaks a look round the room obviously planned by the architect to be the sitting room. The only things of significance he can make out in the room are a Sony LCD and DSTV decoder and a long cushion chair at one end.
Around the room now standing around watching the small Mac screen were about 15 young men and boys, many of the latter barely 10 years old, confirming that there are, indeed, child soldiers in the ranks of the insurgents.
As if to draw back his attention, the volume of Shekau’s voice increases. Of course it is amateur recording.
“A martyr knows he is going to die, knows there are enemies but goes to the battlefield anyway without fear of death because he loves God and he knows God will smile on him,” Shekau’s voice booms from the Mac’s speakers though he cannot be seen.
The next clip is undeniable the attack on the army base in Bama town. Shouts of “Allahu Akbar!” “Allahu Akbar!” could be heard as bullets flew around and bodies were dropping dead.
Another clip comes up. This time, on the screen are the black and white flags of al-Qaida, surrounded by about 20 boys all wearing headscarves and carrying guns. A voice in the background says, “You must wage war.” Then we see Shekau come into focus and his hands rest on some of the boys’ heads. “You must perform every violent act you can.” “Allahu Akbar!” cried the young lads.
Then, the camera picks up Shekau’s full face, zooming in slowly as he declared to the camera in his haunting, taunting voice: “You can kill us but these children will continue. Children are the future.”
Then another clip comes up with Shekau speaking animatedly. It was a long monologue. As he spoke, the camera flashes past shots of pages of the Quran.
“We are going to do things in accordance with the book,” he said. “We will do this to anybody we catch. In Kano, we entered the police headquarters and we killed them. We did the same in Damaturu and Maiduguri. Let the world know that we will never compare anyone to God. No government, no constitution, can compare to God.”
A short warning from the Mac indicated that it had run out of battery power. Fingers flipping over the computer, the man in white shut it down. “What a pity. I would have shown you how we behead unbelievers, soldiers and those who betray us”, he said.
He looks the reporter in the face and as if for effect, pauses then picks his word slowly and deliberately: “This is just a little that you have seen. We will make sure Maiduguri will fall, we will capture Borno, and move further.”
Sensing the opportunity he needed to start his interview, the reporter brings out his recording equipment. However, our host motioned dismissively with his hand for him to stop. “The interview is over”, he said, and added, “Go and report what you have seen.”
The reporter had not seen much more than video sermons of Shekau the seemingly invincible leader of the terrorist sect that has killed more than 5,000 people since 2009 when it commenced its campaign. What about all the questions he had drafted – the Chibok girls, links to al Qaeda, the $7million reward on Shekau, funding of Boko Haram and many more?
However, even in his disappointment, the reporter had gained two significant insights. First, in his parting statement, one of his commanders had unveiled the sect’s ultimate goal – to capture Maiduguri and Borno State and “move further”.
Also, he had confirmation that there were child soldiers among the Boko Haram fighters.
The fallen towns and villages
The insurgents have really not hidden the fact that their ultimate target had been Maiduguri. If they get the state capital, then, Borno State would be their territory and they can pursue more territorial Jihadist conquests. As early as March this year, in perhaps the most brazen operation by the terrorist group so far, hundreds of Boko Haram fighters launched an attack on Maiduguri, home of the 7 Division of the Nigerian Army.
The insurgents dressed in military fatigues attacked the Giwa Barracks where they attempted to free detained colleagues, as well as other locations in the city. However, the military successfully repelled the insurgent, killing more than 250 of them – more than 400 by some accounts.
However, with that defeat, Boko Haram commanders have had to review their war tactics and have gone back to their time and tested strategy of conquering and acquitting territories in little measures, inching towards their target.
Part of that strategy is what is playing out in Konduga, Bama, Damboa and Gwoza, which are 25, 60, 90 and 135 kilometres respectively from Maiduguri.
However, as the world, including local and international media, focuses on the raging battle in those big cities, IQ4Newscan authoritatively report that Boko Haram fighters are scoring huge gains in several small towns and villages near the Borno state capital and other strategic locations in the North east.
In their movement towards major cities, the insurgents have been claiming territories in small villages and towns along the way and they have successfully established strict Sharia rule in these places for a while
Most of these conquests go unreported but the insurgents are inflicting heavy casualties particularly on civilian populations
But, recently, worryingly, the insurgents have moved beyond their traditional strongholds and are now dominating territories near crucial highways and cities that surround not just Maiduguri but strategic towns in Yobe, and Adamawa states.
And, despite media attention on the activities of the terrorist group, many of their advances, particularly in rural, remote places have gone unreported because most of the locals have refused to talk for fear of reprisals.
While local journalists have found it difficult moving around the entire North east or accessing these Boko Haram held areas, Nigerian military forces have largely refused to talk about it.
Our reporter discovered that it is from these strongholds in the villages that Boko Haram fighters launch attacks on major towns and cities. And as Nigerian troops repel their attacks or drive them out of places like Konduga, Bama, Gwoza and Damboa, it is these strongholds in the fringes of the cities that the insurgent fighters return, only to reinforce and launch another attack.
In Gwoza, where insurgents were recently successfully driven out, driving on the over 120 kilometer Bama-Gwoza road was hellish as insurgents still have control of several villages in the area from which they operate. A day before our reporter visited the area, Boko Haram fighters were openly challenging and even driving away the security forces in several districts along the road.
Dandali, a 43 year old traditional medicine man, told IQ4News that Nigerian security forces in the Bini area contend with gunfire daily from Boko Haram, who controls everything
When our reporter visited Budira in north of Doron Baga, in Baga, Jukawa local government of Borno State, Boko Haram were in charge. Baga is the place where over 185 persons were killed in April last year when Boko Haram gunmen engaged the military task force in a fierce battle, killing and burning down over 2,000 houses.
Although the insurgents were repelled, they have only retreated into outlying villages from where they launch attacks against nearby towns and cities.
Sani, a 33 year old resident of Budira, who begged that his true identity be hidden, disclosed that he had been forced to join the terrorists.
He said that when the Boko Haram men arrived in his village, they killed many people but gave young men who could not escape the option of joining them.
“If you resist joining them they will kill you, so I and some others joined them even though we are really not Boko Haram. But we do whatever they tell us,” said the young trader.
“My village is the fifth they captured and since I joined them we have taken three more.”
Sani spoke about the insurgents’ taking over even some big towns in the area, particularly where there is no military presence
“Some towns have become almost impossible to enter, with the group flying its flag and setting up a quasi-government,” he stated
“The difference is that five months ago there were more government forces here; now it is Boko Haram,” said Nasir, a resident of one of the villages regarded as a safe zone for now.
In other villages like New Marte, Hausari, Kirenowa, Wulgo, and Chikun Ngulalo all in Borno State, the terrorists have been in control since early 2014 with their flag hoisted in many places.
The flag, with inscriptions in white against a black background is hoisted not only on rooftops but atop surrounding trees and hills where there is one.
On the flag is inscribed Arabic lettering meaning “There is no deity but Allah and Mohammed (SAW) His Messenger.” Another variant of the flag has a shade of yellow, white and red stripes, and can be seen painted against the Nigerian army emblem on arms it must have taken from Nigerian armoury.
Many of the villagers in these places told our reporter that the insurgents’ forces them to provide food and housing, threatening to kill anybody who refuses.
Our guides took our reporter to several villages and small towns in remote parts of Borno, Adamawa, Yobe and even Gombe where Boko Haram apparently holds sway. And they boasted that there are many more territories already conquered by the terrorists, none of them reported in the media.
Recently, the Catholic Church of Nigeria, through its Director of Social Communication, Catholic Diocese of Maiduguri, Gideon Obasogie, cried out over the onslaught of insurgents, which had forced Catholics to flee from many communities in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states. The church complained that Boko Haram had effectively taken over and remains in control of Gwoza, Magadali, Michika, Gulak, Shuwa, and Bazza, as well as all villages surrounding them.
In the villages visited by IQ4News,our reporter was able to piece together the modus operandi of the terrorists and why they appear to have a tireless army that virtually self-replenishes no matter how much it is decimated.
Our investigations show that in many villages held by the insurgents, most of the men, young and middle aged are forcefully conscripted into the Boko Haram army. The only option is getting killed. Those so recruited are shuffled and taken to other locations where they are ideologically prepared. If any recruit shows any sign of weakness, he is summarily executed.
The women are also conscripted into either the intelligence arm of the army or are sent to the kitchen to cook.
Food is gotten from looting raids on markets or from villages that the insurgents attack. Sometimes, attacks are carried out on villages not for any other purpose but to get food and other supplies. During such attacks, villagers are treated less brutally and there is minimal human casualty except if some of them prove stubborn.
As the church observed, the territorial battle of the Boko Haram sect has spread beyond Borno State, which had been the major focus of the Boko Haram insurgency.
In the Lake Chad Peninsula and many communities bordering Chad and Cameroon, Boko Haram sect members have taken over vast swathes of territory, recently laying siege to an entire community of villages in the Nigeria- Cameroon border area for more than a week.
Along the Sambisa Forest and Mandara Mountains through the Nigeria-Cameroon border, Boko Haram dominates a strategic stretch of territory that straddles main highways leading from Yobe to Borno, through to Adamawa. A journey of forty minutes takes several hours as routes have and continually need to be redefined, affecting local commerce and trade.
Two days afterIQ4Newsarrived Damaturu, the Yobe state, several border towns were attacked. They include Buni Yadi, Buni Gari, and Goniri. The army not only suffered casualty but also retreated along with villagers.
In the attack in Yobe, the Katarko Bridge linking Damaturu to the terrorists’ stronghold in Buni Yadi, the headquarters of Gujba local government area was blown off by the insurgents.
The bridge connects Yobe and neighbouring Borno and Adamawa states and it was the third of such link bridges that have been blown up.
According to a resident of one of the villages “these are not bridges that can be built in weeks, and the economic damage is enormous, the idea is that once they cut of the linking bridges such villages and towns become bases for them, and they are taking one village at a time, and they are coming close.”
But one does not need a villager to analyse the obvious military strategy being employed by the terrorists. They render many villages and towns inaccessible, occupy them and launch major attacks at bigger targets from there.
One strategy that has been used by the insurgents is to reoccupy places where Nigerian troops have vacated, perhaps called into battle in bigger towns and cities. It has been used in Borno State and is now being deployed in Adamawa and Yobe states.
The Emir of Biu, Mai Umar Aliyu, has also observed the trend and told our reporterthat the violence seemed to increase in areas where either army camps have been removed or where the army has less manpower, as the group feels more emboldened to launch attacks without fear of reprisal.
He added that, “one important effect of those gains, particularly where security forces are being driven away, is that Boko Haram are establishing larger sections of lawless territory where they can intimidate local populations. They become safe havens, and staging grounds for more ambitious attacks against Maiduguri and other major towns.”
This report, first published in IQ4News, was supported by Ford Foundation and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting