Nigeria's President Gives Military More Power in Struggle Against Militants

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DAKAR, Senegal -- Struggling to contain a smoldering Islamist insurgency, the president of Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, has ordered in more troops and granted the military more powers to arrest, more authority to seize "any building or structure" and more leeway in "any area of terrorist operation."

Troops have already begun deploying in the wake of a speech by the president, Goodluck Jonathan, on Tuesday night declaring a state of emergency in parts of the country's north, following weeks of violence in which hundreds were killed, including civilians, police officers and some soldiers.

Yet few in Nigeria appeared to be cheering Mr. Jonathan's heightened resolve.

Almost four years into an uprising that has cost nearly 4,000 lives, an amplified version of the anti-Islamist strategy already in place -- a heavy military crackdown in northern Nigeria -- struck many politicians, analysts and residents as a worrying prelude to more of one of this undeclared war's trademarks: large-scale civilian deaths at the hands of the country's security forces.

The Islamist militants are often difficult to detect, but the civilians they hide among are not. And as critics of the government's heavy-handed approach point out, it is the civilians who often pay the freight in the military's tough crackdown.

Mr. Jonathan enjoined local civilian officials to "cooperate maximally" with Nigeria's security forces, and declared a state of emergency in the hard-hit states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa. But the emergency already exists, in the view of many in the north, who questioned how Mr. Jonathan's latest initiative would yield a decisive change in the fight against the shadowy Islamist insurgency there.

"The fact is that this declaration has been done before in some local governments, and nothing has changed," said Badamosi Ayuba, a member of the National Assembly who represents part of Kano, the north's biggest city.

"By this new declaration, it is just like giving license to the soldiers to go and humiliate the citizens and to carry out human rights abuses," Mr. Ayuba said.

Others warned that this crackdown, like predecessors conducted by the Nigerian Army's Joint Task Force, or J.T.F., could drive more recruits into the arms of the main insurgent group, Boko Haram.

"We have warned time and again that the first step for the J.T.F. was to win the hearts and minds of the people, so that the people understand their mission," said Kalli al-Gazali of the Northern Elders Forum, an activist group of moderate notables in Nigeria's north.

"Since the occupation of Borno and Yobe, nobody knows what their rules of engagement are, which is why the insurgency continues unabated," Mr. Gazali added. "They have never distinguished between the innocent and the guilty."

Spokesmen for the military in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, did not respond to calls for comment. Residents have observed troops arriving for several days at an air base in Borno's principal city, Maiduguri, the birthplace of the insurgency, and headed north, apparently toward border areas near Chad and Cameroon where Boko Haram is said to have encampments.

Mr. Jonathan's speech appears to have been prompted in part by a Boko Haram raid in Borno State last week that the military said killed 55 people, including 22 police officers. The military said dozens of Islamist fighters swept into the town of Bama during the raid, breaking into a prison, where they freed 105 people, and attacking a police station.

But the military has been implicated in recent deaths as well. In mid-April, as many as 200 civilians were killed in the lakeside town of Baga after a brief clash between the military and insurgents. Residents and officials described soldiers dousing thatched-roofed homes with gasoline, setting them on fire and shooting residents as they tried to flee.

Mr. Jonathan, in his speech, depicted his country's struggle with the militants in stark terms, saying that parts of Borno State had been "taken over" by them, that they wanted to "progressively overwhelm the rest of the country" and that they had "hoisted strange flags suggesting the exercise of alternative sovereignty."

Some in Maiduguri call that an exaggerated view of the sway held by Boko Haram.

These critics of the government said that local officials had indeed fled from a number of villages in the northern part of the state, fearful of assassination by the militants, who have relentlessly targeted symbols of Abuja's authority. But the departure of the local officials had not led to Boko Haram's moving in to fill the administrative vacuum and run towns or villages themselves, the critics said.

"There is nothing like their taking over and administering local structures of government," said Mr. Al-Gazali, who is from Maiduguri. "There is nothing like the insurgents taking over and operating government" following the departures of what he called "the key functionaries" from some nine local governments in Borno.

One of the country's leading research groups, the Center for Democracy and Development in Abuja, noted that a previous emergency declaration, in December 2011, had been ineffectual, merely cutting off money to the 15 districts affected by it.

"Emergency rule did not lead to an improvement of the security situation in the said local governments," the center's director, Jibrin Ibrahim, said in a statement.

Ini Ekott contributed reporting from Abuja, Nigeria, and Hamza Idris from Maiduguri, Nigeria.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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