Nigeria launched a military campaign on Wednesday to flush Islamist militants out of their bases in remote border areas, after President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in the northeast.
Nigerian troops deployed in large numbers, part of a plan to rout an insurgency by the Boko Haram Islamist group that has seized control of parts of the region.
“The operations, which will involve massive deployment of men and resources, are aimed at asserting the nation’s territorial integrity,” Defense Headquarters said in a statement.
The campaign targets semi-desert areas of the three states in which Jonathan declared an emergency on Tuesday – Borno, Adamawa and Yobe, three of the poorest and most remote in the country.
The Islamist insurgency has cost thousands of lives and destabilized Africa’s top energy producer since it began in 2009, but it has mostly happened far from economic centers such as Lagos. The capital Abuja was however bombed in 2011 and 2012.
It has not affected southern oil fields that provide the bulk of government revenues in Africa’s second biggest economy.
Residents and Reuters reporters saw army trucks carrying soldiers enter Yola and Maiduguri to seek out militants from Boko Haram, whose rebellion has targeted the security forces, Christians and politicians in the mainly Muslim north.
The troop deployment is likely to placate some of Jonathan’s critics, who had accused him of not facing up to the gravity of the crisis, although some northern politicians have already voiced concerns over rising tensions.
It is unlikely those tensions will boil over to the other parts of the country. The Islamists have a foothold across most of the north, but nothing like the power base they have established in these three states.
In December 2011, Jonathan declared a state of emergency over some local government areas, after a church bombing blamed on Boko Haram killed 37 people, but he lifted it in July 2012.
Ayo Oritsejafor, head of the powerful Christian Association of Nigeria, said the move showed Jonathan’s plan to offer the rebels an amnesty had been misguided, saying “no reasonable agreement can be reached with terrorists.”
It is unclear whether greater military might can win a battle against an adversary that has proved a master at melting away under pressure, only to re-emerge again elsewhere.
“The government is thinking it can crush them like Sra Lanka crushed the Tamil rebels,” Kole Shettima, chairman of the Center for Democracy and Development, told Reuters.
“But in Sra Lanka they pushed them to the water, whereas here they will just flee into the desert and come back.”
A Reuters reporter saw six trucks carrying soldiers enter Yola, the capital of Adamawa state. In the Borno state capital Maiduguri, the biggest city in the area and birthplace of the insurgency, residents also reported an influx of troops.
The mood was tense in that city. Shops were mostly shut and there were few people on the streets. Schools were closed.
Maiduguri residents are used to living under military restrictions — a curfew kills activity at 6 p.m. every day — and soldiers patrolling the streets are a common sight. But residents said they saw soldiers in much greater numbers.
“I have never seen soldiers on the move quite like this before.” said one man in Maiduguri, Ahmed Mari.
Jonathan’s orders followed growing evidence that a better equipped, better armed Boko Haram now controls territory around Lake Chad, where local officials have fled.
“What we are facing is … a rebellion and insurgency by terrorist groups which pose a very serious threat to … territorial integrity,” Jonathan said in the address. “Already, some northern parts of Borno state have been taken over.”
Officials say militants control at least 10 local government districts of Borno state — an arid region that once hosted one of West Africa’s oldest medieval Islamic empires — and are using porous borders with Cameroon, Chad and Niger to smuggle in arms and mount increasingly bold attacks.
Security sources say their strategy appears to be similar to that of the al-Qaeda-linked militants who overran Mali late last year, before the French kicked them out in January: take over remote desert areas and establish a de facto rule there, then use that as a base from which to expand.
They have forged growing links with jihadists across the Sahara region, intelligence sources say. But they also enjoy a degree of popular support among a poor, ill-educated populace.
“This state of emergency will not change anything if the people do not cooperate and start exposing members of Boko Haram,” said David John, a director in the state government.
Dozens of Boko Haram fighters laid siege to the Borno town of Bama last week, freeing more than 100 men from prison and leaving 55 people dead, mostly police.
Rights groups say abuses by Nigerian troops in the northeast — such as a raid in the remote town of Baga that killed dozens last month — have alienated the population against them.
A crackdown on Boko Haram in 2009 led to the deaths of 800 people, including its founder Mohammed Yusuf, who died in police custody. Instead of crushing them, it unleashed a torrent of popular rage that only made the Islamists more deadly.