Wednesday, September 3, 2014 4:47 pm
Foreign ministers from Nigeria and neighbouring countries met on Wednesday to discuss Boko Haram, as the militants’ rapid land grab intensified in the far northeast, raising fears for regional security.
The one-day meeting of representatives from Benin, Cameroon, Chad and Niger also includes officials from the United States, Britain, France and Canada plus the African Union and United Nations.
Nigeria’s ministry of foreign affairs said the talks were aimed at “reviewing progress” of earlier meetings in Paris and London as well as the Africa Summit held in the United States last month.
In particular, it would examine “the extent of foreign assistance, including efforts by the Nigerian government, in the continued fight to… rout the Boko Haram insurgency”, it added.
Regional powers vowed to play a greater role against the Islamists after the mass kidnapping of more than 200 girls from their school in northeast Nigeria in April, which caused global outrage.
International powers sent intelligence and surveillance specialists and equipment to Abuja to help trace the missing teenagers, 217 of whom are still being held captive.
But nearly five months on from the abduction, Western diplomats have indicated that there has been little progress, despite a claim from Nigeria’s military that they had located the girls.
Recent weeks have seen Boko Haram take and hold swathes of territory in northeast Nigeria, with the country’s military seemingly unable to check their advance.
On Monday, residents said the militants took over the town of Bama, 70 kilometres (45 miles) from the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, sending hundreds of soldiers fleeing.
But top brass disputed the claim and maintained that they were still in control.
– Fear in Maiduguri –
The attack led to fears that Boko Haram has Maiduguri in its sights and aims to make it the centre of a separate, hardline Islamic state.
Andrew Noakes, co-ordinator of the Nigeria Security Network of analysts, warned that the government was losing control of vast parts of the northeast and a looming humanitarian crisis.
“Unless swift action is taken, Nigeria could be facing a rapid takeover of a large area of its territory reminiscent of ISIS’s lightning advances in Iraq,” he said.
“If Borno falls to Boko Haram, parts of (neighbouring) Yobe and Adamawa (states) can be expected to follow. Parts of Cameroon along the border area would also probably be overrun.”
In Maiduguri, where thousands of people have fled violence from across Borno, residents said they were preparing for the worst.
“We live in fear of a possible Boko Haram attack on Maiduguri because of the speed with which they are taking over towns and villages,” said local man Babagana Kolo.
“Our concern is soldiers are not able to stop Boko Haram who take delight in killing people.
Boko Haram has been blamed for thousands of deaths since 2009 but in recent weeks has changed tactics, shifting from indiscriminate and retaliatory hit-and-run attacks to seizing strategic territory.
In a video obtained by AFP on August 24, the group’s leader Abubakar Shekau claimed that the town of Gwoza in Borno state was now part of an Islamic caliphate.
The group is now thought to hold a number of towns in an arc running from the Lake Chad area of northeast Borno, around the eastern border with Cameroon, to the south of the state.
It also reportedly holds at least one town in neigbouring Yobe and Adamawa states. Independent corroboration is impossible because of communication and travel difficulties while the government has officially denied ceding territory.
Nigeria has repeatedly played up what it says is the regional aspect of the insurgency, blaming foreign fighters and overseas funding for the violence.
But while some foreign mercenaries may form part of the guerrilla ranks and violence has spilt across borders, some analysts say a wider military response risked internationalising the conflict.