Africa’s largest country prepares to go to polls amid security threats

Nigeria prepares to go to the polls amid threats by Sunni militant group Boko Haram to disrupt the March 28 vote.

(BOKO HARAM) – Africa’s most populous country is gearing up for next week’s critical presidential elections amid security threats from the Sunni militant group Boko Haram.

President Goodluck Jonathan of the People’s Democratic Party will face former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, seen as tough on security, in the March 28 election, which is likely to be the closest ballot since the end of military rule in 1999.

Government forces have in the past few weeks recaptured several towns from the militant insurgents in a regional offensive that has turned the tide against the six-year old jihadi insurgency.

Soldiers from Niger and Chad who liberated the Nigerian town of Damasak from Boko Haram militants discovered the bodies of at least 70 people on Thursday (March 19), many with their throats slit, scattered under a bridge.

In what appeared to be an execution site for the Islamist group, the bodies were strewn beneath the concrete bridge on one of the main roads leading out of the town. At least one was decapitated.

The bodies were partially mummified by the dry desert air, while grass has began to grow around the corpses, suggesting that the killings had taken place some time ago.

Boko Haram has killed thousands of people in a six-year insurgency aimed at establishing an Islamic caliphate in northeast Nigeria. Damasak was seized by the Islamist group in November but recaptured by troops from Niger and Chad on Saturday (March 21) as part of a multinational effort to wipe out the militants.

Counter-strikes launched by the armed forces of Chad and Niger over the frontier into Nigerian territory, particularly around Lake Chad, as well as the engagement of hundreds of mercenaries, may have begun to turn the tides of the conflict.

The arrival of new equipment has also helped boost morale among hard-pressed Nigerian soldiers. The joint offensive started on March 8, when thousands of troops crossed the border to seize areas held by the Sunni Islamist group, whose insurgency has forced Nigeria to delay an election and neighbours to mobilize their armies.

Africa’s biggest economy and top energy producer has been plagued by the insurgency launched in 2009.

The inability of the army to dislodge the militants, who have killed thousands of people and kidnapped hundreds in daring raids, has been an embarrassment for President Goodluck Jonathan.

In one brazen attack, Boko Haram militants abducted more than 200 girls from a secondary school in a village near the Cameroon border in April 2014, sparking a worldwide outcry and have remained in captivity ever since.

Boko Haram gunmen carried away some 270 girls and women, aged from 13 to over 20, when they raided the Chibok school. More than 50 eventually escaped, but at least 200 remain in captivity, as do scores of other previously kidnapped girls. The group’s leader Abubakar Shekau has appeared in several videos, including one in which he threatened to sell the girls into slavery.

Nigerian President Jonathan has been pilloried at home and abroad for his slow response to the kidnapping and for his inability to quell the violence by the Islamist militants, seen as the biggest security threat to the region.

But the Nigerian government has warned the splintered militants would regroup and increase attacks on “soft” targets, something that has already occurred with a string of deadly bombings across the north and middle of Nigeria.

The elections were postponed in February by six weeks, with the military citing Boko Haram as warranting the delay but the insurgent’s leader has threatened to disrupt the vote.

The threat came as Islamist group pledged allegiance to Islamic State (ISIS) which rules a self-declared caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria.