Nigeria has begun the new year under a state of emergency in areas targeted by Boko Haram terrorist attacks as soldiers patrolled hard-hit cities in a bid to end spiralling violence in Africa’s most populous nation.
Residents in the northeastern city of Maiduguri reported an increase in patrols and checkpoints, with soldiers in pickup trucks and armed with rifles stopping vehicles and forcing drivers to exit while also questioning them.
In the central city of Jos, security agents took over local government headquarters and two helicopters hovered overhead, while intensified patrols occurred on the ground.
“Everywhere is deserted,” one Maiduguri resident said. “People have refused to leave their homes because they are afraid of what soldiers might do to them now that there is a state of emergency in the city.”
President Goodluck Jonathan’s emergency declaration on Saturday gives security agencies more powers to search and arrest, seals off borders in hard-hit areas and establishes a military counter-terrorism force.
The declaration comes in response to scores of attacks blamed on the radical Islamic extremist group Boko Haram, particularly a wave of bombings on Christmas that killed 49 people, most in a gruesome blast at a Catholic church as services were ending.
While Boko Haram has been carrying out increasingly deadly attacks for months, including an August suicide bombing of United Nations headquarters in Abuja that left 25 dead, the Christmas violence sparked intense fear and outrage.
It also led to warnings from Christian leaders that they would defend themselves if such attacks continued, raising deep concern in a country roughly divided between a mainly Muslim north and predominately Christian south.
In declaring the state of emergency in Africa’s largest oil producer, Jonathan acknowledged that the attacks “have threatened our collective security and shaken the foundations of our corporate existence as a nation”.
Jonathan said in a nationwide broadcast that “it has become imperative to take some decisive measures necessary to restore normalcy in the country especially within the affected communities”.
The decree applies to parts of the states of Borno, where Boko Haram traditionally has its base, as well as Yobe, Niger and Plateau.
Jonathan cracks down
The measures and rhetoric marked a sharp change for Jonathan, who has come under mounting criticism over the authorities’ failure to stop the violence.
Many of his previous pronouncements sought to minimise the attacks and reassure the country that the violence was only temporary and would soon be brought to an end despite near daily shootings and bombings.
While some welcomed the declaration, others raised concerns that it would provide legal cover for soldiers to carry out further abuses.
A military task force in Borno state has been accused in recent months of killing civilians and burning homes after bomb attacks, claiming residents collaborated with the extremists.
“The declaration of a state of emergency by the federal government will not stop or reduce the spate of violence across the affected areas, but will simply be a blank cheque for human rights violations by security agents,” said northern-based rights activist Shehu Sani.
“Civilians will continue to be at the mercy of the military and the militants. Dialogue still remains the valid option to end this bloodletting.”
Hundreds of people were killed in 2011 alone in attacks blamed on Boko Haram, most in the northeast.
The rise of Boko Haram
An early version of the group formed in 2004, though it has taken on different forms since that time. It launched an uprising in 2009 put down by a brutal military assault which left some 800 dead.
It is believed to have several factions, including those with political links as well as radical Islamist cells.
There has been intense speculation over whether it has formed links with outside extremist groups, such as Al-Qaeda’s north African branch.
In addition to the attacks that have rocked the country for months, Nigeria is facing other issues that will add to difficulties in the weeks ahead.
Fuel subsidy controversy
Regulators on Sunday surprisingly announced the start of a deeply controversial measure to remove fuel subsidies, with labour unions warning of protests over the policy expected to lead to higher petrol prices.
“By this announcement, the downstream sub-sector of the petroleum industry is hereby deregulated for (petrol),” a statement from the Petroleum Products Pricing Regulatory Agency said.
“Service providers in the sector are now to procure products and sell same in accordance with the indicative benchmark price to be published fortnightly and posted on the PPPRA website.”
Local sources in neighbouring Niger meanwhile said the border between the two countries was still open Sunday, a day after Jonathan announced a border closure.
“The closure of the border with Nigeria has been announced, but it has not been implemented. Traffic is normal between Diffa and Maiduguri,” the Nigerian state where Boko Haram is particularly active, Diffa prefect Inoussa Sauna told AFP by telephone.
But a correspondent for private radio station Anfani said the announcement had hit traders in the Diffa region hard as it was economically dependent on Borno and Yobe, two other Nigerian states. — Sapa-AFP