TIME Nigeria

Boko Haram Has Fled but No One Knows the Fate of the Chibok Girls One Year On

“It would have been better to see the dead body of my daughter than to let them carry her away”

Some days, the Rev. Enoch Mark wishes his 20-year-old daughter Monica were dead. One year ago she was kidnapped, and not a day goes by that he doesn’t think about her fate. “Sometimes I think knowing she is dead would be better than knowing nothing at all,” he says. Today, the private agony of a father lamenting his missing daughter is amplified 219 times, as Nigeria observes the one-year anniversary of a kidnapping that stunned a country and woke the world to the threat of Boko Haram.

On the night of April 14, 2014, the calm of Chibok, a rural town in northeastern Nigeria, was shattered as militants stormed the dormitory of a government boarding school for girls just before midnight. Gunmen rampaged through the compound, shooting guns and setting fire to buildings while others, disguised as military personnel on a rescue operation, bundled the students into waiting trucks. The girls’ screams could be heard half a mile away. Itinerant preacher Mark, who had only just enrolled his daughter Monica at the school, ran toward campus. By the time he arrived it was too late: the militants had already rounded up 276 girls and disappeared into the nearby Sambisa forest. “It would have been better to see the dead body of my daughter than to let them carry her away,” he says of that night. “But I didn’t see anyone left, dead or alive.”

The abduction drew international condemnation, with celebrities from Michelle Obama to Madonna and Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai calling for their release. Boko Haram, a long-running localized Islamist insurgency determined to bring its radical interpretation of Islamic law to the region, entered the lexicon of global terrorist groups and Chibok, which didn’t even have a Google Maps entry, became a household name. Fifty-seven of the girls managed to escape in the first few days, leaping from the transport trucks where they had been packed like cattle, or dashing into the forest when their captors’ backs were turned. But one year on, 219 girls remain missing, a black eye for the Nigerian military that has done little to locate them, and a rebuke to the international community that joined the Twitter campaign to #BringBackOurGirls, but has achieved little else, despite three regional conferences and international pledges of support. “We keep on telling the girl child that she is important, that she should dare to be educated. Yet we have left 219 of her sisters with terrorists,” says Aisha Yesufu, a mother of three in the Nigerian capital of Abuja who is spearheading the campaign to keep the issue alive. “So everywhere in the world, the girl child, she has realized that she doesn’t matter, not to the world. Nobody cares. Because if her sisters can be left with their abductors for so long, then there is something wrong with us as humans.”

On Tuesday Nigeria’s President-elect Muhammadu Buhari said his government would do everything in its power to bring the Chibok girls home, but he injected a note of caution. “We do not know if the Chibok girls can be rescued. Their whereabouts remain unknown. As much as I wish to, I cannot promise that we can find them.” The Nigerian military, with assistance from mercenary groups as well as neighbors Chad, Niger and Cameroon, has managed to force Boko Haram out of much of the Belgium-size territory it once held, but the group, including leader Abubakar Shekau, is thought to have taken refuge in the trackless Sambisa forest, where it is protected by dense foliage and difficult terrain.

Boko Haram, which loosely translated means “Western education is forbidden,” started in 2002 as a rejectionist religious group that sought salvation in a fundamentalist reading of Islamic law. It turned violent in 2009, when clashes with Nigerian security forces resulted in the extrajudicial killing of founder Muhammad Yusuf. Since then the group has killed around 13,000 people in a violent campaign of bombings, suicide attacks, massacres and guerilla warfare. An estimated 1.5 million people have been forced from their homes by the insurgency, including some 800,000 children, according to the U.N. Children’s Fund.

According to a newly released report by Amnesty International, the Chibok girls are but a small fraction of the 2,000 women and children who have been abducted by Boko Haram since the beginning of 2014. The testimonies of those who escaped makes for grim reading: repeatedly raped, married against their will and forced to fight. It is likely the Chibok girls share similar fates, if they are alive at all — when Gwoza, the capital of Boko Haram’s self-declared caliphate, was recaptured in late March, residents reported that the fleeing militants killed their wives and stuffed the bodies into wells rather than let them be captured by “infidels.” But residents, speaking to the BBC, said they had seen about 50 of the Chibok girls under Boko Haram guard in the weeks before the city fell. “I don’t believe they are dead,” says Yesufu, the activist, by telephone from Abuja. “They are alive, somewhere. Boko Haram understands the importance of these girls, and will want to keep them as bargaining chips.” Shekau has declared in several video broadcasts that the girls, many of whom were Christian, had either converted to Islam and been married off, or refused to convert and sold as slaves.

Just a few months after the Chibok kidnapping, Boko Haram launched a series of devastating suicide attacks by women, leading some to speculate that the girls could have been brainwashed, or otherwise forced into detonating explosive vests and backpacks in crowded markets. “When Kano saw four explosions in the space of a week in July, all apparently involving young women or teenagers, the first thought was: Is this the Chibok girls?” says Elizabeth Pearson, a doctoral researcher in gender and radicalization at King’s College London and a member of the Nigeria Security Network. As a tactic, it is extremely effective: male security guards are loath to pat down female shoppers, and few suspect women to be suicide bombers. With female bombers, “the shock and fear value is greater. With young women being used particularly, this guarantees greater publicity and media coverage.” But the evidence is inconclusive, notes Pearson. There has been no DNA testing, and the damage wrought by the bombs makes visual identification all but impossible.

For Mark, the idea that his daughter might be living as a captive, abused, enslaved and terrified, is worse than the idea of her being dead. He was told, early on, that one of the kidnapped girls had refused to convert to Islam. As punishment, she was stoned to death. “If that really happened,” he told TIME in January, “it might be my daughter, because she holds her Christian faith so strong. If my daughter was stoned to death for Christ’s sake, I will be grateful.” For some, a martyr’s brutal death gives more comfort than knowing nothing at all.

TIME Nigeria

Report: Boko Haram Abducts 2,000 Women and Girls Since Start of 2014

Amnesty International released report on one-year anniversary of the Chibok kidnappings

The terrorist organization Boko Haram has abducted at least 2,000 women and girls since the start of 2014, according to a new report released to mark the first anniversary of the group’s notorious kidnapping of over 200 Nigerian schoolgirls from the town of Chibok.

Many of the thousands of abducted women have been sold into sex slavery and trained for battle since 2014, the Amnesty International report found. Men and boys have also been taken to join in the Islamist extremist group’s fighting across Nigeria.

Boko Haram has killed at least 5,500 Nigerians during the past year, the report said. The group boasts about 15,000 fighters whose tactics include taking kidnapped women and girls to remote camps where they are introduced to the group’s version of the Islamic faith. From there they can be either married off to fighters or trained to join them. Either way, according to interviews in the report, women and girls can fall victim to brutalization and rape.

Amnesty International is hopeful that a new government in Nigeria, elected in March, will offer a fresh approach to combating the group, which it says has not been properly investigated and prosecuted thus far.

Nigerian President-elect Muhammadu Buhari promised to crack down on the group Tuesday. “We hear the anguish of our citizens and intend to respond accordingly,” his statement said.

TIME Nigeria

New Efforts Promised to Find Girls Kidnapped by Boko Haram

People march on a street during a silent protest calling on the government to rescue the kidnapped girls of the government secondary school in Chibok, who were kidnapped a year ago, in Abuja, Nigeria, Monday, April 13, 2015
Sunday Alamba—AP People march on a street of Abuja, Nigeria, during a silent protest on April 13, 2015, calling on the government to rescue the Chibok schoolgirls who were kidnapped a year ago

President-elect Muhammadu Buhari says kidnapping was "an attack on the dreams and aspirations of our young people"

Marking the one-year anniversary of the kidnapping of 276 girls by Boko Haram, President-elect Muhammadu Buhari said on Tuesday that his government plans to do everything in its power to rescue them.

However, Buhari was also careful not to overpromise.

“We do not know if the Chibok girls can be rescued,” he said, according to Reuters. “Their whereabouts remain unknown.”

The kidnappings grabbed international attention, in large part because of the viral hashtag campaign #BringBackOurGirls, and highlighted the misery being wrought by Boko Haram in its attempt to establish a religious caliphate in northern Nigeria.

“Let us use this anniversary to remind each other that the attack on Chibok was an attack on the dreams and aspirations of our young people,” Buhari said.

Nigeria’s outgoing President, Goodluck Jonathan, was roundly criticized for his government’s slow response to the tragedy, which he claims was due to concerns that Boko Haram would kill the girls.

On Tuesday, Amnesty International released a report claiming that Boko Haram had abducted at least 2,000 women and girls since the beginning of 2014, with many being forced into sexual slavery or combat roles. The report also estimated that over 5,500 civilians had been killed during that time.

[Reuters]

TIME Nigeria

Here Are 4 Challenges Nigeria’s New Leader Must Overcome

Nigeria Election
Sunday Alamba—AP President-elect Muhammadu Buhari speaks moments after he was presented with a certificate to show he won the election in Abuja, Nigeria on April 1, 2015.

For President-elect Buhari, winning Nigeria's tight election race is the easy part. Keeping Africa's biggest country afloat will be harder

When he defeated President Goodluck Jonathan at the polls on March 28, Muhammadu Buhari made history as the first opposition candidate in Nigeria to unseat a president through the ballot box. But the president-elect faces far greater challenges when, on May 29, he takes office and must confront Nigeria’s multiple problems, from an economy that has been hit by the falling price of oil, a government paralysed by corruption, and a security sector beset by one insurgency and threatened by another. If Buhari, 72, is to leave a legacy equal to his history-making victory, he will have to take on these challenges:

Cutting out corruption

Buhari’s All Progressives Congress [APC] party emblem is a broom, symbolizing his commitment to sweeping out the corruption that has plagued Nigeria for decades. He has a proven track record, too. Unlike most of his predecessors and successors, he did not use his time in power, as military president from 1983 to 1985, to enrich himself, and still lives in the modest home of a retired general. But even if he manages to resist the temptations of office, he will have to work with the political elites in his party who brought him to power, largely through Nigeria’s deeply entrenched system of political patronage and its attendant promises of favors and kickbacks. “The APC line is that there will be no corrupt individuals in Buhari’s cabinet, but there will have to be some wiggle room,” says Elizabeth Donnelley, assistant head of the Africa program at London’s Chatham House foreign policy institute. “Deals have been made, and things are owed.” Buhari may not be able to sweep away graft in the short term, but if he immediately strengthens existing anti-corruption institutions that had been intentionally weakened under previous administrations, such as Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, and oversees the prosecution of standout cases, he will set the right tone. A good place to start would be an investigation into the country’s petroleum ministry, where an estimated $20 billion in oil revenue is thought to have gone missing, according to a 2014 report by Nigeria’s Central Bank.

Taming Boko Haram

In tackling the Islamist insurgency that has killed more than 13,000 over the past six years, Buhari faces a three-fold problem. With significant help from neighbors Chad and Niger, along with an estimated 100 foreign mercenaries, Nigeria’s army has managed to push Boko Haram out of all but three local districts, liberating territory roughly the size of Belgium. But in order to keep Boko Haram from re-grouping, Buhari will have to oversee a complete restructuring of an army hollowed out by years of neglect and corruption. He will also need to ramp up security and intelligence services as the insurgents, denied territory, resort increasingly to terror attacks. Two assaults in the country’s northeast over the weekend took several dozen lives, underscoring the urgency. Buhari will also need to strengthen the relationship with those countries assisting in the fight, whose leadership feels that they are doing the bulk of the work with little recognition.

The insurgency has devastated parts of Nigeria. The United Nation’s Deputy emergency relief coordinator, Kyung-wha Kang, says that some 1.5 million people have been displaced by the fighting, creating one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world today. More than 300 schools have been severely damaged or destroyed, and less than 40% of health facilities, in a historically underserved area, remain operational. Farmers have fled fighting in the country’s agricultural heartland, leading to rising food costs and the risk of widespread malnutrition.

It’s the economy, stupid

Nigeria may have surged past South Africa to become the continent’s biggest economy last year, but that growth has slowed. The International Monetary Fund estimates that economic growth will slow to 4.8% this year, down from 6.1% in 2014, and the Naira is down 17% against the dollar. Inflation is on the rise, and foreign reserves are at a historic low, largely due to the decline in oil and gas prices, which provide nearly 70% of government income. The oil and gas sector only accounts for about 16% of GDP, which means that if Buhari can help the government diversify its revenue base to better incorporate Nigeria’s booming entertainment and telecoms sector, he could oversee a return to better growth. The problem is that when it comes to economics, he is largely inexperienced, and will have select cabinet members with strong economic and business backgrounds. “I believe that Buhari is going to choose a very strong, good team in various departments, but most especially in economy,” Nigeria’s Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka told Bloomberg TV. “I think, like me, he’s an economic illiterate.”

Keeping the oil-rich delta area onside

To secure Nigeria’s economic growth, Buhari will have to prioritize his government’s relationship with the militants that upended the oil industry for much of the early 2000s. In 2009, then Vice President Jonathan negotiated a temporary amnesty deal with the militants that saw an end to the attacks on oil pipelines and kidnappings of foreign oil workers that made the region a no-go area and drove the price of oil to record highs. In exchange the militants, who claimed that they had long been denied the oil riches from their native lands, received generous payouts. The deal, which includes education stipends for some 30,000 residents, is set to expire at the end of 2015. If Buhari is not prepared to extend multi-million dollar contracts with local powerbrokers that make up a large portion of the amnesty agreement, the militants could respond with violence, igniting an uprising in the south even as he tackles the Boko Haram insurgency in the north. Buhari could extend the agreement, but better still would be to address the underlying issues: that the Delta’s oil wealth funds the nation with little in return for locals but environmental degradation and a few low-wage, low-skill jobs.

TIME Nigeria

Twitter Courtesy Has Been a Factor in Reducing Post-Election Violence in Nigeria

NIGERIA-ELECTIONS-RESULTS
Nichole Sobecki—AFP/Getty Images Nigerians celebrate the victory of main opposition presidential candidate Mohammadu Buhar, in Kaduna on March 31, 2015.

Nigeria's election defied predictions for widespread violence and fraud. A concerted social media campaign may have played a part

For an election considered too close to call as Nigerians went to the polls en mass on Saturday morning, nothing was more surprising than the fact that for the first time in the country’s post-colonial history an opposition challenger succeeded in pushing out a sitting president via the ballot box. That and the fact that for all the dire predictions of doom and violence, the final results were accompanied by cheers and groans, not gloating and gunshots. Some of that just may be attributable to winning candidate Muhammadu Buhari’s remarkable Twitter feed, rife with positive thoughts and cheerful goodwill throughout.

Winning candidate Muhammadu Buhari, who will be sworn in as President on May 29, praised his rival President Goodluck Jonathan for peacefully relinquishing power. “President Jonathan was a worthy opponent and I extend the hand of fellowship to him,” Buhari told a gathering at his campaign headquarters on Wednesday. For his part, Jonathan, a former Vice-President turned two-time President who many had assumed would never willingly give up power, was gracious in his defeat, saying in a statement, “I promised the country free and fair elections. I have kept my word.” He went on to encourage his supporters to stay calm and accept the results, no matter how disappointed. “Nobody’s ambition is worth the blood of any Nigerian. The unity, stability and progress of our dear country is more important than anything else.”

While there was no shortage of rancor through out the campaign period — at one point Jonathan supporters spread the rumor that a long-planned speaking engagement for Buhari, 72, in the United States was in fact an emergency medical consultation for suspected prostate cancer — both candidates repeatedly professed a desire for a peaceful election and a mature, responsible electorate. By and large they got it, with minimal damage from protestors and a relatively low death toll of just a few dozen, compared to the slaughter of the 2011 election, which saw more than 800 die in widespread rioting. For most of the run up to the election, Buhari supporters and campaign activists hinted at dark conspiracies by Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party to rig the vote, prevent Buhari supporters from going to the polls, or manipulate the final count.

But throughout it all Buhari’s Twitter feed focused on the positive, rarely betraying the acrimony splashed across Nigeria’s partisan papers. Buhari came late to Twitter, signing on only on the last day of January with the verified handle @ThisIsBuhari, compared to early adopter Jonathan. Buhari demonstrated few of Jonathan’s grievous faux pas, among them the ill conceived #BringBackJonathan hashtag campaign for re-election, a tasteless imitation of the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag slogan to recover the 257 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram last year. From earnest shoutouts to female candidates for state governor:

To exhortations for Nigerians to stay calm in the wake of terror attacks:

His final twitter missive to Nigerians, spelled out over 50 successive posts, qualifies as one of the more novel campaign uses of a medium designed to be brief.

Even when U.S and European officials expressed concern that there might be military and government manipulation in the final counting of the votes on Monday, Buhari urged his supporters to stay calm:

Most endearing of all was a tweet not scripted by Buhari himself, but retweeted in honor of his wife:

But after the celebrations come thorny issues such as taking on the Islamist militants Boko Haram. In a speech on Wednesday, Buhari said: “Boko Haram will soon know the strength of our collective will. We should spare no effort until we defeat terrorism.”

TIME Nigeria

Muhammadu Buhari Wins Nigeria’s Presidency in Stunning Upset

Nigerian Presidential Elections
Anadolu Agency—Getty Images Mohammadu Buhari, the presidential candidate of the main opposition party All Progressives Congress, speaks to the press as he arrives for registration at Gidan Niyam Sakin Yara polling station in Daura district of Katsina, Nigeria, on March 28, 2015

Winning may be just the easy part in a country plagued by insurgency, corruption and economic malaise

In a radical reversal of fortune, presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari has proved that the fourth run is the charm when it comes to being elected President of Nigeria. In an election plagued by technical mishaps, Buhari has sealed victory over incumbent Goodluck Jonathan by little more than 2 million votes in the tightest race the country has seen since the end of military rule in 1999.

Jonathan called Buhari to concede victory on Tuesday evening and if the transition goes smoothly — not a given considering Nigeria’s dark legacy of postelection violence — the onetime military dictator, 72, will be making history as the first opposition candidate to unseat an incumbent since the country gained independence from Britain in 1960.

These hard-won successes will be nothing compared with what is in store for the President-elect, however, from the falling price of oil, economic stagnation, entrenched corruption, a radical Islamist insurgency in the north and the possible resurrection of a southern rebellion. But his biggest challenge yet may be one familiar to any presidential challenger who unexpectedly finds himself a victor in a brutal campaign for change: managing expectations.

“Nigeria is in a situation where we have to get it right, right away,” says banker Henry Farotade by phone from Lagos. “We can’t afford to waste time. We are hoping Buhari will do like Obama when he came in after Bush, and turn things around.”

The spokesman for Buhari’s All Progressives Congress party, Lai Mohammad, says that the President-to-be is more than ready for the charge. Speaking by phone from the Nigerian capital, Abuja, as the final vote tallies rolled in, Mohammad could barely contain his joy. With precision he listed the next steps, from an acceptance speech to how Buhari would deal with ethnic and religious rifts brought on by the grueling campaign. “We are ready. We are going to take Nigeria in a new direction, and we are going to start by healing old wounds. This is no time for a honeymoon, this is a time for nation building.”

Buhari’s success at the polls on Tuesday comes 30 years after he was knocked from his post as military head of state in a 1985 coup. A born-again democrat who has pursued the presidency in every election since 2003, Buhari campaigned on a platform of zero tolerance for corruption and a commitment to wiping out the Boko Haram insurgent group that has killed and kidnapped thousands in the past year.

But for all the international attention Boko Haram has garnered, the threat of a renewed insurgency in the oil-rich south may prove far more devastating for Nigeria’s economic stability, and a far greater challenge for a Muslim from the north who represents everything that the southern insurgents fought against throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, as they sought a greater share of the country’s oil wealth. A temporary truce agreement is up for renewal later this year, and it is not certain that the southern insurrectionists will be willing to work with Buhari.

“There has been a lot of muttering in the south that they will not tolerate a Buhari victory, that they would suspend oil supplies and would kick out northern-owned businesses,” says Ryan Cummings, chief Africa analyst for the Johannesburg-based Red24 risk consultancy. “So the core issue facing Buhari is that he could have an insurgency in the northeast, and in the south as well.” For Elizabeth Donnelly, assistant head of the Africa program at the London-based policy institute Chatham House, the first step for Buhari will have to be “a real charm offensive” in the south, to ensure that southerners know he will be protecting their interests as much as those of his traditional northern constituents.

Nigeria can expect in Buhari a radically different leader from Jonathan, says Donnelly. Given his military background, Buhari is likely to maintain the regional alliance against Boko Haram and keep up a strong military campaign. But he may have troubles on economic issues, where he has little demonstrable experience. “What it really comes down to is whether or not Buhari can devolve economic decisionmaking to the right people.”

For Farotade, the banker in Lagos, what matters most is that Nigerians have proved that they can actually kick a sitting President out of power. “It’s an ecstatic feeling. It means we are gradually coming of age as a real democracy. This is the accountability we have been waiting for.” Though he has high hopes for Buhari, he is confident that if Buhari fails, there will be repercussions. “If Buhari doesn’t deliver, all we have to do is wait till 2019, and we will vote him out.”

TIME Nigeria

Nigerian Army Takes Boko Haram Capital and Boosts Goodluck Jonathan’s Election Chances

President Goodluck Jonathan is finally leading a strong campaign against insurgents but battlefield victories may not be enough at the ballot box

The Nigerian army said on Friday that it re-taken the town of Gwoza where the Islamist militant group Boko Haram had maintained its headquarters.

“These successful operations have culminated in the dislodgment of terrorists from towns and communities in Adamawa, Yobe and Borno states,” military spokesman Chris Olukolade told the BBC. He said that Boko Haram fighters were seen fleeing to areas near the border with Camerooon.

The perception of military success might give President Goodluck Jonathan a better chance of beating his rival Buhari who has criticized Jonathan’s failure to take action against Boko Haram in the last six years.

When Nigeria’s presidential elections were postponed by six weeks in February for security reasons, many saw it as a thinly veiled attempt by Jonathan to gain time in a race that was turning in his rival’s favor. Had elections been held on schedule, Buhari might have had a very good chance of knocking the incumbent out of power in a first for Nigeria’s electoral history; the two candidates were equal at the polls.

Despite Jonathan’s best efforts to downplay an Islamist insurgency that had plagued the country’s northeast with massacres, mass kidnappings and a spate of terror attacks that has seen more than 11,000 killed during his time in power, his detractors successfully used the issue to raise wider questions about his abilities as leader of a country that is Africa’s economic fulcrum. So when Jonathan pledged to launch a military operation that would wipe Boko Haram from the map, it was widely interpreted as an effort to buff up his defense credentials in the face of a former military dictator who had made security the cornerstone of his campaign. Jonathan’s Peoples Democratic Party was “aware that after an underwhelming electoral campaign, it needed to recover ground,” says Roddy Barclay, senior Africa analyst at Control Risks, a U.K.-based political risk consultancy. “The military offensive was considered necessary to restrict Boko Haram’s ability to destabilize the country in what was set to be a turbulent election. But it was also seen as a way to boost the PDP’s propaganda campaign, showing that it can manage national security.”


It was a risky tactic; failure, after all, would have made for a potent weapons in the hands of his opponents. But now that the Nigerian army, with the help of foreign mercenaries and a coalition of military forces from Chad, Cameroon and Niger, has managed to push Boko Haram out of all but three of the 20 districts the radical Islamists once held, many are starting to wonder if success on the battlefield will lead to Jonathan’s victory at the ballot box.

That question will be put to the test when Nigerians go to the polls on Saturday March 28. In the closest presidential race since the end of military rule in 1999, Nigerians will be voting on several different issues. Chief among them will be the bread and butter basics that any voter around the world can relate to: jobs and the economy, or, in Nigerian parlance, eba and soup, the national dish of pounded cassava with stewed meat. Jonathan’s record is spotty on both: while Nigeria edged out South Africa last year as the continent’s biggest economy, the country’s vast oil wealth has not trickled down to the general populace. And the global decline in oil prices has hampered investment in a country where at least 70% of government revenue comes from petroleum exports. In addition to security, Buhari has campaigned hard on the issue of corruption, another Jonathan weakness.

So, when it comes to issues, Jonathan may have just succeeded in supplanting Buhari’s security credentials. On Wednesday March 25 Jonathan told the BBC that Boko Haram was “getting weaker and weaker every day…I’m very hopeful that it will not take us more than a month to recover old territories that hitherto have been in their hands.” It later emerged that Nigeria’s anemic army required the assistance of some 100 South African, Ukrainian and British mercenaries, (The Nigerian government acknowledged they are receiving “technical and logistical support” from “foreign contractors”) but what matters in the end is that Nigeria, with the help of its neighbors, now appears to have the upper hand over Boko Haram.

The military offensive has reset the balance of power in the northeast and dented Boko Haram’s confidence while boosting military morale in the lead-up to the elections. That will help government standing in the elections, but it will not be the main factor determining how people vote, says Barclay. While some voters may not want to go against the government just as it is gaining ground, others remain skeptical. After all, Jonathan had six years to do something about Boko Haram, only to act decisively when his reelection prospects were under threat.

In some ways, the fact that Jonathan has not been 100% successful against Boko Haram may also work in his favor. The insurgent group is still active in some areas, and it has promised to disrupt the elections. People in the north, a Buhari stronghold, may be scared to vote; depriving Jonathan’s rival a key vote block.

But the bigger issue is that Nigerians, particularly in the rural areas, still vote along ethnic, regional and religious lines, and in that context, Buhari and Jonathan are evenly matched. Buhari is also avidly courting the relatively small number of swing voters that may be persuaded to vote for Jonathan because of his successes against Boko Haram. Jonathan’s military defeats of Boko Haram “may make a difference to the intelligentsia, but to the grass roots voters it doesn’t make a difference,” says Adunola Abiola, a Nigerian political analyst who founded the UK-based Think Security Africa policy group. “There are many who don’t understand or care about the insurgency, and by and large they are the ones who turn out to vote.”

In the early days of the election, a Jonathan campaign strategist dismissed the insurgency as a significant campaign issue, noting that the majority of Nigerians were more concerned about eba and soup,” and that only those directly impacted by terror attacks would vote on security issues. Now that Jonathan has proved his security bona fides, his strategists may be wishing that Nigerians cared a little bit more about defeating Boko Haram, and less about the economy.

TIME Cameroon

More People Are Fleeing Northern Cameroon to Escape Boko Haram

In this file photo taken on Feb. 25, 2015, a family of refugees that fled their homes due to violence from the militant group Boko Haram sit inside a refugee camp in Minawao, Cameroon
Edwin Kindzeka Moki—AP A family of refugees who fled their homes because of violence from the militant group Boko Haram sit inside a refugee camp in Minawao, Cameroon, on Feb. 25, 2015

Cross-border attacks are fueling the exodus

The surge in violence and cross-border attacks by Nigerian Islamist militants Boko Haram has doubled the number of civilians in Cameroon displaced by the conflict, with some 117,000 people from northern Cameroon fleeing their homes in March alone, according to a U.N. survey.

Boko Haram, which has waged an insurgency in northern Nigeria since 2009, has killed 6,400 and carried out 337 attacks since January 2014, according to the U.N. Recently, the group has been launching cross-border attacks into Niger, Chad and Cameroon.

“The northern part of Cameroon was already under severe strain due to deteriorating climate conditions over the last three years. The growing insecurity has further exacerbated that situation,” U.N. Sahel coordinator Robert Piper told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Cameroon also shelters at least 66,000 Nigerian refugees escaping Boko Haram.

[Reuters]

TIME portfolio

See the Nigerian Town Freed From Boko Haram

Bama, Nigeria, is now a ghost of a town

Even before Nichole Sobecki’s helicopter landed in Bama, Nigeria, on March 25, the staggering devastation was visible.

The militant group Boko Haram, which has sworn allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), held the key northeastern town for six months before military forces wrestled control of it about a week earlier. The American photographer, based in Nairobi but recently working in Abuja, was embedded with Nigeria’s army, which took back Bama as part of a multi-pronged effort that also includes forces from neighboring Niger, Chad and Cameroon.

“Corrugated iron roofs lie among charred debris, the walls of houses blackened with soot or in ruins,” she tells TIME. “Dusty roads inside the town offer further evidence of atrocities. The remains of a man lie in a sewer, in the fetal position surrounded by trash and human waste. A nearby bridge was used as an execution site,” she adds. “Soldiers cover their faces when entering Bama’s former prison to protect themselves from the smell of those killed as a final act of vengeance before Boko Haram fled the town.”

Sobecki says Bama is now a shadow of a town.

“It’s empty of all but a fraction of its people; its buildings collapsed; the smell of decay everywhere,” she says. “Most people had fled in the days before I got there, often to Maiduguri, where an estimated 7,500 people are camped out in a makeshift settlement of little more than a few dilapidated buildings in a clearing of Neem trees on the outskirts of the city.”

Those who remain—mainly women and children—sit “huddled together on the roadside,” she continues, “seeking shelter from the harsh sun in what little shade they can find as camouflaged troops roll by in armored personnel carriers.”

Nigerians will go to the polls this weekend, but despite a big push from the country’s military and its allies against Boko Haram, much needs to happen for the country to stabilize.

“This crisis has been years in the making,” Sobecki says. “It’s going to take a much more sustained effort to restore any meaningful sense of security here. When I visited northern Nigeria in 2010, I saw a crumbling education system, poor infrastructure and poverty and unemployment out of line with the rest of the country. Today, it doesn’t look much different.”

Read next: Why Nigeria’s Elections Could Trigger Renewed Violence

TIME Nigeria

Why Nigeria’s Elections Could Trigger Renewed Violence

Incumbent Goodluck Jonathan and challenger Muhammadu Buhari are neck and neck, setting the stage for violence, or worse, in Saturday's election

On Saturday Nigerians will head to the polls in the country’s tightest election since the end of military rule 16 years ago. One-time military dictator Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC) is taking on incumbent Goodluck Jonathan of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in a race that has captivated the country, and the continent, for several months. Not once in Nigerian history has an incumbent government lost a presidential election, but this time around there is a strong sense that the opposition actually has a chance. It’s a sign of a maturing political system, but many fear that the tight race could presage a spasm of post-election violence that could send Africa’s biggest economy over the edge, particularly as the security services are preoccupied with an operation against the Boko Haram militant group in the northeast. A recent Afrobarometer poll shows that most eligible Nigerians intend to vote, but at least half are concerned about political intimidation and violence.

Past elections in Nigeria have proven turbulent, but 2015 is likely to prove particularly volatile, says Roddy Barclay, senior Africa analyst at Control Risks, a political risk consultancy. “Nigeria is at a key crossroads as it enters this election cycle. This is the first genuinely competitive election since democracy was restored in 1999, and that challenges the longstanding status quo in the country’s political system. Under either scenario — a Jonathan or a Buhari victory — we anticipate blowback in the form of unrest in the heartland of the losing candidate.” And in a country already beset by a vicious Islamist insurgency, that unrest could have repercussions across the region.

This is not the first time Buhari, a Muslim northerner, has faced Jonathan at the polls. In 2011 Buhari challenged Jonathan, a Christian southerner, and lost by a large margin. But this time around he has a strong national backing, with the country’s major opposition parties coalescing around him. Polls in December indicated that Buhari and Jonathan were equally popular. A six-week postponement of elections, originally slated for February 14, due to insecurity may have given Jonathan, with his deeper purse, an edge in campaigning, but Buhari supporters have been unflagging. In the interim they welcomed several PDP defectors — and their vote banks — into their camp.

Not only are the vote blocks evenly matched, the potential for frustration-fueled violence as one side looses to the other in a tight race is much higher. There is also the issue of regional rivalry. In running for what some Nigerians consider a third term — Jonathan, a former vice-president, came to power in 2010 when President Umaru Yar’Adua died in office — the incumbent is breaking a longstanding political agreement to alternate power between northern and southern candidates. As a result, there is a strong perception in the north that the region has become increasingly politically and economically marginalized under Jonathan, says Barclay. The government has also struggled to meet the expectations of a young and increasingly urbanized society that demands rapid change, enabling the opposition to gain ground. “Buhari supporters really believe that he can win this time around, because he has a credible platform and a high-profile national campaign,” says Barclay. “So if expectations are frustrated, we’re likely to see a violent reaction.”

And the precedent is grim. When Jonathan was announced the winner of the 2011 election, rioting in the country’s north and central regions killed an estimated 800 in violence that broke largely along ethno-religious lines. “That spasm of unrest was largely due to frustrated northern youth taking to the streets in anger at a vote that they saw as impeding their prospects for future prosperity,” says Barclay. “That anger was manifested in the targeting of communities that were thought to favor Jonathan, in particular Christians in the north.”

Adunola Abiola, a political analyst and founder of the London-based Think Security Africa policy institute, was in the northwestern city of Kaduna during the 2011 riots. The stage is set, she says, for a much more widespread outbreak of rioting. In 2011 the violence was disorganized and spontaneous. “People were coming out and expressing their anger and targeting anyone they thought was in the ruling party based on their religion and ethnicity,” she says. “This time around you have an opposition that is national. It’s more likely that we will see violence across the country.”

Abiola is particularly concerned about the potential for accusations of electoral mismanagement and fraud. It is not clear that voters in the three northern states where Boko Haram is strongest will be able to go to the polls, nor is it certain that the estimated one million people displaced by the insurgency will be able to vote. Likely Buhari voters, their exclusion could spark allegations of fraud should he lose. “I am not suggesting in any way that the APC organizes violence, but they do have a passionate support base that may take violent action if they feel Buhari has been cheated in this election,” says Abiola.

Still, she says, a Jonathan or a Buhari win is preferable to the alternative: stalemate. In Nigeria’s constitution the presidency is not won on a majority vote alone. A successful candidate also needs to get at least 25% of the vote in 2/3 of Nigeria’s 36 states. By Think Security Africa’s calculations, Buhari has the popular vote, but Jonathan has the wider regional base. While a runoff is possible, the numbers are not likely to change on a second round, considering how close the two candidates are, says Abiola. “Our conclusion is that a free and fair poll will likely result in a stalemate.” With an economy rattled by the declining price of oil, the country’s main source of revenue, and an insurgency that threatens the region, Nigeria cannot afford paralysis in government, says Abiola. With so much weighing on the outcome of the election, taking Nigeria into the uncharted waters of a political standoff could be the most dangerous outcome of all.

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