NIGERIA’S military fought Boko Haram militants in the restive northeastern city of Maiduguri on Sunday, as US Secretary of State (Foreign minister) John Kerry jetted in to discuss fears about election-related violence.
Militants launched a dawn raid on Jintilo village on the outskirts of the Borno State capital, prompting soldiers to respond with heavy weaponry and air strikes while the entire city was put on lock-down.
At the same time, Islamist fighters attacked and seized Monguno, about 65 kilometres (40 miles) from the fishing town of Baga, where hundreds - and possibly up to 2,000 according to right groups - people were killed in a devastating Boko Haram onslaught earlier this month.
“Monguno has fallen, Monguno has fallen,” said a senior military officer, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorised to speak to the media, told AFP. Another security source confirmed that the Islamist militants had taken over the town, which lies about 125 kilometres (80 miles) north of the Borno State capital Maiduguri.
Amnesty International said civilians in the city and surrounding areas were now “at grave risk” and called for their “immediate protection”.
The renewed violence underscored the extent of the difficulties facing Nigeria as it scrambles for a solution to enable hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the unrest to vote next month.
It also demonstrated the uphill battle facing President Goodluck Jonathan, who was at a campaign rally for the February 14 election in Maiduguri on Saturday, where he again vowed to end the six-year insurgency.
Kerry touched down in the financial capital, Lagos, and headed straight for separate meetings with Jonathan and the main opposition’s presidential candidate, former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari.
The Nigeria visit—the first by a US secretary of state since Hillary Clinton in 2012—was announced on Friday during a speech in which Kerry warned of the dangers of Islamist extremists worldwide.
Kerry has previously described the attack on Baga as a “crime against humanity” while the United States has warned of the threat to Nigeria’s sovereignty posed by the militants, who want to create a hardline Islamic state in northeast Nigeria.
A senior US official told reporters travelling with Kerry that the insurgency, which is increasingly threatening neighbouring countries, would likely be raised with both candidates.
“We have been working very, very closely with the government of Nigeria to address Boko Haram, and I can say very clearly that no country has done as much as we have to support Nigeria’s efforts,” the official said.
“And we would hope that both candidates will be able to address the insecurity and address Nigeria’s response to Boko Haram.”
But US involvement in Nigeria has been fraught, with criticisms in particular of the Nigerian government’s slow response to the mass abduction of 276 girls from the town of Chibok in April last year.
US drones were deployed and the Pentagon dispatched intelligence and surveillance specialists in the hope of finding the 219 teenagers still being held but to no avail.
Assistant Secretary of State Linda Thomas-Greenfield has accused Nigeria’s military of being in denial about the threat posed by Boko Haram, which has captured dozens of towns in the last six months.
Nigeria’s ambassador to Washington has accused the United States of failing to provide the weaponry required to end the rebellion and Abuja also ended a US training programme for soldiers to take on the militants.
But despite massive defence spending accounting for some 20 percent of the federal budget last year, Nigerian troops maintain that they lack the right weapons and equipment to take on the better-armed militants.
‘The world is watching’
Boko Haram is thought to have increased the scope and intensity of its attacks this year to further undermine the credibility of the government, which it sees as illegitimate and un-Islamic.
But Kerry was instead expected to address poll-related violence, which has blighted previous Nigerian elections and which it is feared could erupt again, given the closely fought race.
Some 1,000 people died at the last elections in 2011 during protests in central Nigeria, where the predominantly Christian south meets the mainly Muslim north.
Both Jonathan and Buhari recently signed a non-violence agreement but that has not stopped sporadic outbreaks of unrest between supporters of their Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the All Progressives Congress (APC).
The US official said Washington expected free, fair and peaceful elections in Africa’s most populous nation.
“This election in Nigeria is being watched by the entire continent and in fact by the entire world,” the official added.
The United States has pressed for the elections to go ahead, despite the raging insurgency.
This week, Nigeria’s national security advisor Sambo Dasuki called for polling to be delayed as 30 million voter cards had yet to be distributed. But the electoral body maintained it was on track..