Nigerian town looks to militias for salvation from Boko Haram - not Africa's once 'mighty army'

The vigilantes are short of ammunition, but will attack Boko Haram. "The military will withdraw as usual", residents say.

THERE was a time not too long ago when Nigeria’s army was one of Africa’s mightiest, and being speedily dispatched to restore order in troubled nations like Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Not any more. Residents in the Nigerian town of Chibok were looking to local militias—and not the army—for rescue just days after the Islamist Boko Haram militants seized control there.

Though the Nigerian army said Sunday it had recaptured and “secured” the town where Islamic militants abducted more than 200 schoolgirls in April, for days after the town fell it was nowhere to be seen - and it wasn’t clear whether its latest claim of victory would turn out, like many previous ones, to be an empty one.

The town in the northeast Borno state has been under a global media spotlight since Boko Haram kidnapped 276 schoolgirls there in April, most of whom are still being held. It was again the focus of attention when militants seized the community on Thursday after firefights with militia members that sent the Nigerian army fleeing.

Militias step up

“They (Boko Haram) had a very intense battle with the local vigilantes there, throughout the town,” Ayuba Chibok, uncle to one of the kidnapped girls, told AFP. “For now I have faith in them (vigilantes) much more than in the Nigerian army.”

The militia fighters, who are government-backed, have become a key part of the battle against Boko Haram.

Some 48 hours after the initial fighting, Boko Haram militants still had control of Chibok and “numerous people were dead,” said Pastor Enoch Mark, whose daughter and niece are among the girls held by Boko Haram.

Since capturing Chibok, Boko Haram militants have torched its churches, though most of the town was already mostly in ruins after the attack in April that ended with the girls being taken. The local police station, government offices were never rebuilt.

Neighbouring villages were also burned during Thursday’s battle.

Neither the Nigerian army nor the office of President Goodluck Jonathan responded to AFP’s requests for comment on the symbolic capture of the village.

Jonathan has been heavily criticised for his lack of reaction during the mass abduction in April and only met with the hostages’ families in July.

“He promised that the government and the soldiers know where the girls are and that we would be united with our sisters,” Chibok said. “And he also said that he would increase the security in our town, but it is the contrary that happened.”

Despite their sparse resources, the militia fighters, known collectively as the Civilian Joint Task Force, appear to have become a substitute for the army in many areas of the restive northeast of Nigeria.

Armed with bows, machetes, clubs and homemade rifles, the fighters retook the commercial hub of Mubi in southern Borno state from Boko Haram with the help of hunters.

However, as claims that Boko Haram has committed massacres continue to mount, similar charges are being leveled against the militia fighters.

One militia member claimed to have decapitated 41 Islamists near Biu in Borno state, where witnesses said they saw the fighters carrying the heads of their victims through town on wooden pikes.

“All I know is that the commander of the vigilantes is going to take back the town,” said Chibok community leader Pogu Bitrus, who added vigilantes are short of ammunition, but will attack. “The military withdrew as usual.”

Thousands flee to Cameroon

And in further humiliation for Nigeria, everyday its people cross the border on motorbikes, donkeys or even on foot, all are looking for safe haven from Boko Haram.

They arrive at the already teeming refugee camp in Minawao in northern Cameroon, where they join the thousands of Nigerians who have fled the insurgency in their home country that’s killed some 10,000 people. Though Cameroon is far smaller and very poor compared to Nigeria - Africa’s largest economy - its military has stood up better to Boko Haram when they have crossed into their territory – along with fleeing troops.

The population of the camp, which squats on an arid plain ringed by mountains, has shot up to 18,000 from 6,000 in just two months.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 4,000-5,000 more arrive each week in the far north of Cameroon, which butts up against Boko Haram’s fiefdom of Borno state.

About 70% of those new arrivals are women and children who need immediate assistance in the form of food, shelter and medical care.

The UN’s special representative for central Africa Abdoulaye Bathily warned Thursday the refugee situation there is on the verge of a disaster.

“If nothing is done urgently, it is very likely that a humanitarian catastrophe will follow that would further complicate the security challenges,” he said.

100,000 refugees

Since Boko Haram launched its campaign in 2009 to take control of Nigeria some 40,000 Nigerians have sought refuge in Cameroon and another 100,000 have done so in Niger.

At the camp’s primary school 16 teachers are responsible for educating some 1,500 students who turn up for hugely overpopulated classes in electric blue uniforms.

“We do what we can to teach them to write, read and count. But it’s complicated in these conditions,” said teacher Albert Tamta, who has 156 students in his class. “We lack a lot of things, especially notebooks.”

Some have already endured these conditions for years, with no end in sight. Boko Haram recently denied it had agreed to a ceasefire, as was claimed by the government.

“It’s impossible to go home, it’s too dangerous,” said refugee Ayuba Ishaku, who fled Gwoza in northeast Nigeria a year ago. “I would like to work here in Cameroon, but they do not speak the same language as we do. I feel a bit lost.”

-Reporting by AFP

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