Boko Haram Rampages, Slaughters in Northeast Nigeria

Militant Islamist Group Has Carried Out a Nearly Weeklong Massacre

The Wall Street Journal/January 9, 2015

By Drew Hinshaw in Accra, Ghana and Gbenga Akingbule in Abuja, Nigeria

By the fifth day of Boko Haram’s rampage through the northeast Nigerian town of Baga, so many residents had been shot that “dead bodies were littered everywhere,” said Maina Ma’aji Lawan, the senator for the area. Then the Islamist insurgents torched the town.

“There is not any single house that is standing there,” said Baba Hassan, a resident who said he witnessed the attack.

In the early hours of the carnage Bulama Masta began to lose his children as they tried to flee to safety. Two drowned last Saturday as the family swam away from Baga, which sits on the shores of Lake Chad. Three others were shot on Sunday

, he said.

He arrived childless on Monday at the largest nearby city, Maiduguri.

Since taking over the town in the past week, Boko Haram fighters also swept through the surrounding villages, killing residents of communities who they consider to be opponents, according to Mr. Masta and other survivors, officials and local vigilantes.

While the sudden savagery of Islamic extremists shocked Parisians this past week, Baga is part of another atlas where militant groups have made brutality a regular occurrence.

The violence provided a gruesome backdrop as President Goodluck Jonathan launched his re-election campaign during the same week. There were doubts about whether a huge swath of the country would be able to vote.

A government spokesman said soldiers were “actively pursuing the militants.”

The Islamist insurgency seized the remote town of Baga on this past Saturday, and then spent the next six days hunting down and killing its residents, particularly men, though it also shot at women and children, survivors said.

Boko Haram has a history of slaughtering communities that oppose their bid to force fundamentalist law upon Nigeria. But the current massacre risks delegitimizing a presidential election in Africa’s largest democracy.

While Boko Haram was still terrorizing Baga on Thursday, President Jonathan was in the major city of Lagos, 800 miles to southwest, kicking off his campaign for a second term.

Critics have questioned how a nationwide election could be carried out, especially in the northeast, amid such bloody tumult and dislocation. In the past two years, 1.6 million people in northeastern Nigeria have fled the insurgent group, according to the United Nations. Many say they left their voter’s identification cards behind. Others have fled to neighboring countries, such as Niger and Cameroon.

Their numbers are still growing: About 7,300 refugees showed up in Chad in the past 10 days, the U.N. said Friday, adding that about 1,000 more were stranded on an island in the middle of Lake Chad.

Boko Haram controls a Belgium-sized swath of northeastern Nigeria, which happens to be the stronghold of Mr. Jonathan’s opposition. The All Progressives Congress is hoping to rouse massive turnout in that part of Nigeria’s Muslim north to unseat Mr. Jonathan, a Christian from the country’s south.

But the militants of Boko Haram preach that participating in an election is a capital sin—a fact that could help Mr. Jonathan carry what might otherwise be a more closely fought vote. On Thursday, Boko Haram’s purported leader, Abubakar Shekau, released a video in which he ranted against democracy and urged citizens of neighboring Cameroon to “rebel against democracy.”

“Either you repent or you will suffer the trauma your neighbor Nigeria is suffering,” he said, after firing off a pair of assault rifles.

Mr. Jonathan spent the same Thursday afternoon in Lagos, telling a thunderously applauding crowd of supporters that he would ensure that every Nigerian could vote in the Feb. 14 election. He said the army would be re-equipped. He also said he had ordered the country’s electoral commission to make sure everyone voted, though he didn’t elaborate further.

Spokesmen for the electoral commission and Mr. Jonathan didn’t answer calls to their mobile phones.

“All Nigerians must vote, and I mean it,” Mr. Jonathan told his cheering followers Thursday.

The next day, a group of suspected Boko Haram fighters patrolled the villages outside Baga, warning residents not to vote, said a villager who fled, a vigilante stationed nearby and Sen. Lawan, who is affiliated with the opposition.

Falmata Kulima said insurgents shot her neighbors, then advised her not to vote “as it will amount to haram [a sin] in the sight of Allah,” she recalled. Her husband, she added, is missing.

“We cannot be talking of an election when the very electorate is being killed,” said Sen. Lawan. He and other witnesses said they had seen no sign of any military presence in the area.

“Security forces have responded rapidly,” spokesman Mike Omeri said. “We will stop Boko Haram.”

More than 16,000 people have died in the Boko Haram conflict since 2011, and of those 11,245 of them in 2014 alone, according to New York’s Council on Foreign Relations. That tally, culled from news reports, doesn’t include the latest attack.

—Emmanuel Julius in Maiduguri, Nigeria, contributed to this article

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