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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

Nigeria aims for ‘fortress towns’ to defeat Boko Haram

With the military unable to control rural areas, the government has turned to new tactic to defeat the terror group

An aerial view of buildings standing on scorched ground that have been destroyed in the conflict with Boko Haram in the Bama region of Borno state. REUTERS/Paul Carsten
An aerial view of buildings standing on scorched ground that have been destroyed in the conflict with Boko Haram in the Bama region of Borno state. REUTERS/Paul Carsten

Nigeria's government has a plan for the northeast, torn apart by eight years of conflict with Boko Haram: displaced people will be housed in fortified garrison towns, ringed by farms, with the rest of the countryside effectively left to fend for itself.

The vision for the state of Borno, ground zero for the war with the Islamist insurgency, is a stark admission of the reality in the northeast.

For two years, the military and government have said Boko Haram is all but defeated, and the remnants are being mopped up.

But the military is largely unable to control territory beyond the cities and towns it has wrested back from Boko Haram. That means many of the nearly 2 million displaced people across the northeast cannot return to their homes in rural areas.

Kashim Shettima, the governor of Borno state, said it was not possible for people to live in small villages.

"There's beauty in numbers, there's security in numbers. So our target is to congregate all the people in five major urban settlements and provide them with means of livelihood, education, health care and of course security," he told Reuters. "It's a long-term solution, certainly."

The plan for the eastern part of the state, centred on the town of Bama, is intended as a pilot scheme to be rolled out in other parts of Borno if it is successful.

Vigilantes, currently members of a group known as the Civilian Joint Task Force, will become agricultural rangers, the governor said.

Aided by Nigerian security forces, they will aim to secure and patrol a five-km (three-mile) radius around each garrison town where people can farm.

Peter Lundberg, the United Nations Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator for Nigeria, who heads the organisation's response in the northeast, said the reconstruction of Bama town, the second biggest in the state, was "logical".

"People are very eager to go back if the conditions are right and if the conditions are safe, if the conditions are dignified, and of course it has to be voluntary," he told Reuters.

Boko Haram's recent attacks, including a suicide bombing that killed at least 50 in a mosque in Adamawa state last week, are the "last kicks of a dying horse," Nigeria's Information Minister Lai Mohammed said last Sunday.

But military and diplomatic officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said overstretched troops are unable to push Boko Haram out of non-urban areas. Much of Borno is not under the authorities' control and attacks are rife.

On Saturday, suicide bombers killed at least 13 people in the town of Biu and injured 53 others.

"Borno is not getting better at all. It may have even gotten worse," a diplomat said of the security situation outside urban areas. "There is no recovery and stabilisation."