Islamic State wreaks havoc as turbulent Nigeria nears vote

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LAGOS (Feb 15): Amina Sanusi was getting ready for morning prayers at her home in northeastern Nigeria, when she heard gunshots and explosions.

She scrambled into nearby bushes with her two children, but lost contact with her husband. Government soldiers in the fishing town of Baga on the shores of Lake Chad fled too, overwhelmed by the firepower of Islamist militants. Like thousands of others since an upsurge in attacks that started in December, Sanusi, 25, made a 200-kilometer (125-mile) journey by foot and by bus to a camp for displaced people in the Borno state capital, Maiduguri.

“The soldiers tried, but it was too much for them,” said Sanusi, wearing a black hijab and breast-feeding her daughter in the Dalori camp. “We were so afraid. I still don’t know what happened to my husband. I’m praying for him.”

The violence in northeastern Nigeria underscores the insecurity plaguing Africa’s biggest oil producer and, by some measures, largest economy ahead of a tight election on Saturday. President Muhammadu Buhari, a 76-year-old former general, is seeking a second term and faces his main challenge from Atiku Abubakar, 72, a businessman who once served as a vice president.

For now, militants loyal to Boko Haram, which has killed tens of thousands of people in the past decade, and a breakaway faction loyal to Islamic State that more recently appeared on the scene, seem to be gathering momentum.

Convoy Ambushed

They ambushed the convoy of Borno’s governor, Kashim Shettima, on Tuesday, while he was campaigning near the border with Cameroon, killing at least three people, his spokesman said. Islamic State’s so-called West Africa Province claimed the attack and said that 42 were dead, according to the SITE Intelligence Group.

The Islamist insurgency, which is affecting countries across West Africa, is the worst of a series crises threatening to overwhelm the military and police and undermining Buhari’s campaign pledge before his 2015 victory to restore security.

Clashes between farmers and herders over grazing land led to around 2,000 deaths last year, mainly in central parts of the country, according to Amnesty International, while thousands have been displaced in the northwestern state of Zamfara amid a rise in kidnapping and raids on villages. Tensions are also brewing in the oil-producing Niger River delta, where militants intermittently sabotage pipelines and other energy infrastructure.

“Africa’s most populous country is in for a turbulent few weeks,” said Ben West, an analyst at Stratfor, a risk-advisory firm based in Austin, Texas. “Growing unrest across the country creates an environment for Nigeria’s many regional and sectarian security threats to fester and spread leading up to and following the election.”

While Buhari’s credentials have been damaged by the insecurity, according to Ed Hobey-Hamsher, an analyst at Bath, U.K.-based Verisk Maplecroft, the setbacks won’t necessarily doom his chances for re-election.

“Buhari has done a good job, even with these new attacks,” said Bulama Mani, 35, who arrived in the swelling Dalori camp, which now houses around 20,000 people, three weeks ago after fleeing his home near Baga. “It’s better than it was before,” he said, explaining that Boko Haram controls much less territory than it did when Buhari came to office.

Abubakar, Buhari’s opponent, has focused mainly on reviving an anemic economy and has said little about how he’d tackle the security problems.

Several others in Dalori who didn’t want to give their names said Abubakar was unpopular because he did little for Borno while he was vice president between 1999 and 2007, even though he hails from neighboring Adamawa state.

Nigeria’s information minister, Lai Mohammed, said this month that the nation was “at the forefront of the battle” against Islamic State and that its members were moving to Borno after the group was beaten back in Iraq and Syria.

“In some of those places, it has become a de facto government,” said Cheta Nwanze, head of research at SBM Intelligence in Lagos, the commercial capital. “It appears that the military high command does not have a response to this resurgence.”

United Nations appeal

Nigeria and the United Nations appealed for almost US$850 million this year to assist those living in the northeast ravaged by the crisis, which has displaced 2.5 million people across the Lake Chad region.

The Nigerian election commission has said people will mostly be able to vote in Borno, even if they’re in the displaced camps. That’s the last thing on the mind of Zainab Awali, a 28-year-old tailor and mother of four who arrived in Maiduguri in January after fleeing the violence.

“I don’t care about the elections,” she said. “Even if we vote, the politicians don’t care about us. I’m left with nothing. We’re still in shock.”