Despite the news blackout and 24/7 curfew in Maiduguri following Monday’s Boko Haram attack on military facilities, a few details on the incident are emerging. Leadership is saying that the Boko Haram forces numbered more than five hundred. They used motorcycles, and “about twenty pickup vans and other military vehicles.” The attack started a 2:45 am and lasted some five hours.
Apparently, Boko Haram had little difficulty getting inside the air force base. Leadership quotes a solider as saying, “they practically walked over the base. It took a fighter jet from Yola to save the base from the worst carnage.”
According to the Nigerian media, Boko Haram destroyed military housing, burned vehicles in garages, and damaged or destroyed the air force base headquarters building. There is variable reporting on the number of aircraft (planes and helicopters) destroyed and no credible reports as to the number of human casualties, though the Nigerian army claims that it killed twenty-four jihadists. If there really were five hundred jihadists involved, this would be a low percentage of casualties. There is no credible reporting that I have seen on the number of military and civilian personnel killed.
Maiduguri, a city which once had a million people, has been thoroughly occupied by the Nigerian military since the proclamation of a state of emergency. Numerous government spokesmen have said that the city had returned to normal. Recent Boko Haram attacks have been in small villages, in rural areas, and along the roads, not in urban areas. Under these circumstances, how could a large Boko Haram operation happen, seemingly out of the blue? Apparently President Jonathan has the same question. According to the official News Agency of Nigeria, he convened an emergency meeting on December 2 of the national security advisor, the chief of defense staff, the chief of army staff, and the chief of air staff. There was no statement after the meeting and participants were tight-lipped.
How significant is this attack? It would seem to discredit the government’s claim that it is “winning” in the North. The scale of the Boko Haram attack is also startling; its tactics, while not new, recall those of jihadists rebels in northern Mali. It is to be hoped that the attack will be a wake-up call to the Jonathan administration that its counter-terrorist approach to the insurrection in the north is not working.
The Maiduguri attack occurred in a traditional area of Boko Haram activity with the usual targets and familiar methods. As such, it does not signal a new threat to the viability of the Nigerian state. But, it may threaten President Jonathan’s political chances in the run-up to the 2014-15 elections (the date is not yet set) by highlighting his political failure to end the jihadist insurrection.