Boko Haram Encircles City of Two Million Ahead of Elections

Fleeing Boko Haram
Displaced people fleeing from violence wait in line to receive relief materials at a camp for displaced people camp in Borno State, January 19, 2015. Stringer/Reuters

Islamist militant group Boko Haram are believed to have surrounded the northeast Nigerian city of Maiduguri and are regrouping for a large-scale offensive before the presidential election on February 14, according to eyewitnesses and analysts, triggering fears of a massacre in the city of two million.

The group launched an audacious offensive on the city last week to coincide with the visit of U.S. secretary of state John Kerry to the capital, Lagos, to meet with both presidential candidates, incumbent Goodluck Jonathan and opposition leader Muhammadu Buhari.

The attack was countered by the Nigerian military but the group are now reportedly regrouping in a bid to capture the Borno State capital before the general election begins in two weeks, Nigerian security sources told local African media outlet Sahara Reporters. The militants have stepped up attacks in an attempt to destabilize the country during the presidential campaign.

John Campbell, former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria and editor of the Nigeria Security Tracker - a tool which monitors violence in the West African country - says that Boko Haram's territorial gains in Borno State appear to show an encirclement of Maiduguri, a city where 200,000 have sought refuge from attacks carried out by the militants in the surrounding area.

"In terms of the encirclement of Maiduguri, we try to track the villages that Boko Haram occupies around Maiduguri and indeed it looks like a noose," he said.

Analysts believe that it's unlikely the group would try and capture and hold the city as the group's manpower is limited and its ability to hold on to large swathes of populous territory remains in doubt.

This inability to capture the entire city will force the group to focus on particular targets within the city, such as its airport or authorities, says Campbell.

"The airport of Maiduguri is important. It's both a civilian airport and a military base. It's the international airport and the loss of this airport would be a severe blow to the federal government [based in Abuja]. Hence, I would not be surprised if the focus of a Boko Haram attack would be limited to the airport."

However, Washington's former diplomat in the country also warned that a massacre of civilians by the group is "certainly possible", with likely targets being associated with the Nigerian government. The militants would face greater resistance than in smaller towns such as Chibok and Baga, where Boko Haram fighters reportedly killed over 2,000 people in a massacre that sparked international condemnation.

"The people I think would be the prime targets [of a Boko Haram offensive] would be officials, police, maybe teachers in secular schools, people like that."

Residents of the city of two million told Associated Press this week that Boko Haram already controls three roads leading to areas it holds while the radical Islamists were attacking a fourth road that leads to the northern city of Kano.

Campbell confirmed that the road to Kano, from Damaturu, was the only road not yet taken by the group and this would be a likely target of theirs.

The group has continued to take towns and villages around Maiduguri such as Baga. Analysts say that the group has continued its expansion on the outskirts of the city of two million people.

When asked about the encirclement of the city, Manji Cheto, analyst at political risk consultancy Teneo Intelligence, said: "At this point, it is a credible assertion to make partly because what we have seen is a slow expansion of the group's sphere of operations from the remote northeast expanding westwards."

"If you track the movement of the group you can see a very clear expansion. So yes, I think there is some credibility to it," she added.

Boko Haram continues to wage an insurgency against symbols of authority in the country's northeastern regions of Yobe, Adamawa and Borno, that remain under a state of emergency.

The Council on Foreign Relations' Nigeria Security Tracker estimates that the terror group have killed up to 10,404 people since January 2014.

The Hunt for Boko Haram, an in-depth ebook on the terrorists tearing Nigeria apart by Alex Perry, is available now from Newsweek Insights.