Nigerian city on alert after Boko Haram advance

Nigerian city on alert after Boko Haram advance

Mohammed Bako stared out at the teeming Jimeta market in Nigeria's Yola city, looking for anything suspicious amongst the hawkers selling cheap phones and cars attempting near impossible turns down narrow alleys.

Bako runs a box-size phone shop in the market, but 18 months ago took on a new job as head of the local vigilante force working with the military against Boko Haram. Two days earlier, the Islamists carried out deadly attacks, including at a market, in the two other northeast state capitals that have been under emergency rule: Damaturu and Maiduguri.

"This is what makes us wake up," Bako told AFP, warning that complacency in Yola could lead to disaster. Several suspected insurgents have been arrested in Jimeta market in recent months, he said, in a claim backed by local media reports.

Bako refused to be identified in pictures or on video, for fear of being targeted by the Islamist rebels blamed for more than 13,000 deaths since 2009. Threats are rising, he added, but said he was unfazed and prepared to give his life defending Yola.

"Definitely, we are ready to die," he said.

'Panic situation'

A late October offensive by Boko Haram in the north of Adamawa stunned many in its capital Yola, which had previously been removed from the conflict. The Islamists, fighting to create a caliphate in northern Nigeria, captured several key towns, facing almost no military resistance and raising fears that Yola would also fall into rebel hands.

"Three weeks ago, people were in a panic situation," said Phineas Elisha, the spokesman for Adamawa's Governor James Bala Ngilari. "People were sleeping with one eye closed and another open... Even if you heard a burst tyre, people will begin to run" thinking it was a bomb, he said. Tens of thousands of people fled their homes and the insurgents reached as far as Gombi, some 120 kilometres (75 miles) from Yola.

The military, backed by vigilantes and local hunters, has since claimed to have recaptured many of the lost towns. But the security situation remains uncertain and those displaced by fighting are too fearful to return home.

Abandoned by troops

Aside from Boko Haram violence, the security crisis in the northeast has been fuelled partly by a loss of public confidence in the military. "I don't think the troops are really serious," said Hudu Ibrahim, 40, who fled the town of Uba in late October, with his four wives and 14 children, trekking more than 100 kilometres through bushlands before finding a ride to Yola.

"Everyday they told us they were doing their best, while you can see them running," he said, perched on a step of primary school which has been converted to a displaced persons (IDP) camp where he now lives.

The military declined to comment but Ibrahim's account was supported by many others at the IDP camps around Yola. Victoria Emmanuel, a self-assured mother of three who was forced to flee an Islamist offensive on the town of Michika, said "the military ran away from the area and left us to our fate".

Help from hunters

The searing sun seemed to not bother Mohammed Usman Tola, who wore long sleeves and as he stood amid his band of hunters, having just returned from operations against Boko Haram. Clutching a hardly-modern rifle with a wooden handle, the 60-year-old and his brothers-in-arms looked incapable of overpowering Boko Haram, who are known to have tanks, grenade launchers and anti-aircraft weapons.

But experts, and even the military, have acknowledged the crucial support hunters and vigilante forces have offered.

Tola, the chief hunter in Adamawa, said his men have helped chase Boko Haram out of many towns in recent weeks, including Gombi, Michika and the commercial hub Mubi. Given their inferior fire power, some reports have suggested the hunters use occult techniques to defeat the insurgents. But Tola said: "Charms, African magic... is not really what is working.

Our weapons defeat them because God is on our side."

Reprisals

Wearing an immaculate, cream-coloured cassock in Yola's Roman Catholic cathedral, Bishop Stephen Mamza said the greatest challenge will be what happens after Boko Haram is defeated.

Thousands of people have sought shelter and food aid from his church since late October, and Mamza has ensured that both Muslims and Christians are getting his help. Boko Haram may be fighting an Islamist rebellion in name but Mamza said leaders of both faiths must stress that the conflict is about extremism, not religion and that the vast majority of the rebels' victims have been Muslims.

"My greatest fear (is) revenge" once people return home, he said, noting that Christians as well as Muslims may seek to punish anyone perceived to be loosely connected to Boko Haram. "We have a big task ahead of us... We have to preach to them how they can reconcile and also live in peace."

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