ABUJA, Nigeria (BP) — Boko Haram’s incessant capture of villages in northeastern Nigeria is gaining attention from United States and United Nations security officials, who say the terrorists’ victories are troubling and pose a serious threat to Nigeria’s overall security.
The U.S. is “very troubled by the apparent capture of Bama and the prospects of an attack on [Borno state capital] Maiduguri,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Linda Thomas-Greenfield told a group of international security officials convened in Abuja Sept. 4. The U.S. is preparing to launch a “major” border security program to help Nigeria, Thomas-Greenfield said, but offered no details, the Associated Press reported.
But Nigeria’s military has recaptured Bama, a town of about 200,000 in northeast Borno from Boko Haram and blocked the Islamist militants’ advance toward Maiduguri, according to a senior military official who requested anonymity, Reuters reported today (Sept. 8). After Boko Haram captured Bama on Sept. 1, Nigeria began airstrikes as early as Sept. 3 against the jihadists’ military bases outside Bama, and continues to fight threats to neighboring Adamawa, Reuters reported.
Boko Haram’s attacks have disproportionately targeted Christians in efforts to establish Islamic rule in the country where Christians comprise roughly half the population of some 179 million. In the latest attacks the terrorists have begun occupying towns as “Islamic Caliphates” and hoisting Boko Haram flags, reportedly in the Damboa and Gwoza towns in Borno, and Buni Yadi in Yobe.
Boko Haram killed about 350 Christians in northeastern Nigeria in the past week and forced the temporary closure of Kulp Bible College in Kwarhi and many churches, Nigeria’s Church of the Brethren in Nigeria (EYN) told Morning Star News Sept. 6. Thousands are feared trapped in areas Boko Haram has captured.
A legislator displaced from his constituency including Gwoza has requested U.S. humanitarian aid. Nigeria relations expert Adeniyi Ojutiku, a Southern Baptist who leads the Lift Up Now USA grassroots outreach group, shared with Baptist Press a letter he received from Peter Biye Gumtha, representative of the Chibok/Damboa/Gwoza Federal Constituency of Borno State.
“It is our fervent plea to every well meaning individual or organization to come to the aid of our people as they are suffering in no small measure,” Biye Gumtha wrote in the Aug. 30 letter he has asked Ojutiku to share with the U.S. Congress. “They have nothing to eat because the insurgents carted away all that they labored for, for years. They have no shelter over their heads as most of the [refugee] camps are schools that cannot contain large number of people. They have no future because they have abandoned their primary occupation which is farming and their children cannot go to school.”
More than 50,000 refugees from Chibok/Damboa/Gwoza are scattered in Cameroon and Nigeria, he said, and are included among 645,000 Nigerians the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees tabulates are internally displaced. The U.N.’s refugee agency reports there are tens of thousands more who have fled into neighboring Cameroon and Niger. In total, an estimated 1.5 million Nigerians have been forced to flee their homes, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Since 2009, Boko Haram has killed about 15,000 Christians including nearly 30 clergy, destroyed or bombed 208 churches, burned 25,000 homes and bombed 35 schools in the legislative region, Biye Gumtha said. Ojutiku believes Biye Gumtha’s numbers are credible.
“He has an office that manages information, that receives information, and processes data coming from his area. I would consider his record to be more credible than anything that we’ve ever seen,” Ojutiku told Baptist Press. “I would trust his numbers because he is a person that has day-to-day contact with his people.”
Christian leaders in the region are requesting prayers.
EYN President Samuel Dali sent Sept. 6 what was described as an “emergency prayer message” to Morning Star News and other agencies, Morning Star News reported.
“Boko Haram violence has been getting worse every day, and our members are fleeing the area by the thousands,” Dali said in the report. “Recent attacks in Borno and Adamawa states where … our churches are located have seen Boko Haram take over the Army base. As a result, about 350 Christians have been killed.”
“Every night at the EYN headquarters, our staff and their families go to bed with hearts bound in fear for their lives,” Dali said. “This has forced them to be prepared to flee at any time of the night in an event an attack occurs during the hours of darkness.”
The specific number of Boko Haram deaths over specific periods varies among reporting agencies. The advocacy group Jubilee Campaign, for instance, reported nearly 7,500 deaths from the beginning of 2013 to date.
Boko Haram overtakes towns by both trickery and force, Ojutiku said, often dressing as Nigeria military soldiers and using military vehicles. He shared with Baptist Press cell-phone footage of Boko Haram’s attack on Gwoza, forwarded to him from an associate in Nigeria.
“They wear [military uniforms] to confuse the public, so that sometimes the public don’t even know whether the people who are asking them to move out of their homes or to move to safety are actually Boko Haram people,” Ojutiku said. “Sometimes what they do, they go into town, get the people to maybe go to what they call a shelter … and when they are in the so-called shelter they kill all of them.”
“So the people are not really certain, because of the military fatigues, the clothes that they wear, they are not sure whether its Boko Haram people or whether its soldiers,” Ojutiku said. “So they create that confusion obviously to be able to deceive people and have them killed.”
Boko Haram has intensified attacks on Nigerian towns since President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in northeastern Nigeria in May, 2013.
The U.S. State Department designated Boko Haram an official foreign terrorist organization in December 2013, giving the U.S. added power to weaken the group. The European Union followed in June, designating the jihadists a terror group.
The U.S. extended military intelligence support to Nigeria in May, after Boko Haram kidnapped nearly 300 school girls in Chibok. Efforts to secure the girls’ release have been unsuccessful. While some escaped independently, an estimated 223 remain missing and are feared forced into slavery as wives of Muslims.
Diana Chandler is general assignment writer/editor for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).