Sunday, 8 December 2013
How Boko Haram sneaked into Maiduguri
■ “We said our last prayers”
From TIMOTHY OLANREWAJU, Maiduguri
For two weeks, the rumor of possible attack by Boko Haram was rife in Maiduguri, Borno State capital and birthplace of the insurgent group. Many residents had forewarned that the insurgents were hitching to hit the city hard due to the uncommon and united way the people had curtailed their deviousness since mid June when the youth volunteer group, Civilian JTF berthed.
Then, a suspected Boko Haram informant on an alleged mission to spy on the metropolis was also caught by vigilant residents around the Monday Market/Bulabulin area. Residents claimed the suspect boarded a vehicle from Beneshiek, a community along Maiduguri-Kano highway that had also been visited with violence early September, to the state capital but his suspicious movement reportedly aroused the curiosity of people around the area including commercial drivers. He was subsequently apprehended and handed over to military personnel around the area after confessing his motives.
But while residents were still savoring the coolness of the harmattan season in their sleep in the wee hours of Monday morning, the insurgents sneaked into the state capital in Hilux vehicles which were mostly seized from security agencies, government officials and motorists. “They came with operational vehicles like Hilux, motorcycles and bicycles,” a security source told Sunday Sun, adding that the insurgents did not move in convoys unlike in their previous operations. “They divided themselves into groups so that nobody suspected them and they came from the western axis of the city from the back of the airport which also borders the air force base,” the source explained. The premises of the Maiduguri airport bursts into a vast forest leading into Mainok and Beneshiek bushes.
Some residents of Gomari and Bulumkutu, the sprawling communities opposite the air force base, claimed some of the insurgents had arrived the areas few days before the attack. “I believe some of the Boko Haram men were already within the vicinity few days before the attack because some of them moved from the Gomari and Bulumkutu end with motorcycles and bicycles to attack military formations,” a resident who did not want his name in print said.
How the insurgents fired the first shots
Audu (other names withheld ) who resides few metres away from the air force base, at Gomari-Old Airport said the Boko Haram first assembled at a place near his house. “They were discussing first in Kanuri but unfortunately I didn’t hear what they were saying. The time was 1.30am. Few minutes later, they said their prayers and ended with fatiwa, shouting Allah Akbar, Allah Akbar. Initially, I thought some people in a nearby mosque were holding a vigil but when I started hearing movement of people, I knew there was a problem. Then, shooting started and continued for about 20 minutes. Somebody was shouting stop shooting, stop shooting in pidgin. I thought the person was a soldier because he sounded like a commander in the military. He also gave some orders but was not clear to me. The shooting abated for about five minutes and I concluded they were military troops probably trying to scare some people but to my surprise, a loud explosion came and shooting resumed till dawn,” he disclosed. He said he knew hell was let loose as unfolding events including sporadic gun shots, explosions and arrival of a military fighter jet later indicated. “I didn’t even know what to do. He said he never believed he would live to tell the story adding “My wife and four children joined me in my room, we later moved to the parlor and back to my room again when the shooting became fierce. We were confused and my children were crying but I told them to stop because they could attract attention of the insurgents. They were near our house no doubt, we could hear their voices and movements. They prayed that God should save us and He did”. He also disclosed that he saw some of the insurgents walking into adjoining streets at the dawn of the day when the fighter jet had stopped assault on them, adding that those he saw were young men.
Reaction of security forces
Security sources said the attack was a surprise to military authorities in the state, adding that the army had recorded some successes in its assault on the insurgents until they struck on Monday. “At least, the army and the Air Force had cleared the insurgents in some parts of Gwoza and Damboa, a week ago and operations were still going on their when the terrorists struck in Maiduguri on Monday. Nobody expected they could have the effrontery to enter the city but they did. It still beats the imagination of many of us,” a military officer hinted in a chat with our reporter. Also police sources said the insurgents may have been planning the attack for weeks, adding that the manner in which they executed the attacks confirmed this . “They came in some vehicles like army patrol vehicles with some painted in army colours. From reports, many of them wore army and air force uniforms. They divided themselves into groups with bombers and simultaneously hit the 333 Artillery and Air force. But what surprised me was the decoy they used in their operation. They mounted RPG and other sub-machine guns on a few Hilux vehicles, connected the triggers of these guns with generators kept inside the vehicles and the generators assisted them in powering the rod that persistently pulled the triggers to release bullets with nobody inside the vehicles. Unfortunately, they moved some meters away from these vehicles and also shooting again toward the Air Force side where counter-offensive was being launched by the army”, the police source disclosed. But as hours ticked away, the insurgents had already penetrated the 333 Artillery of the Nigerian Army and the Air Force base (79 Composite Group) along same highway, as they burnt almost all the buildings and facilities including five air craft within the premises of the two military formations.
Survivors recount ordeal
Survivors said they had a close shave with death. A septuagenarian woman, Madam Hannatu Musa recounted how her entire family gathered in their parlor and said their last prayers. “My husband is very old and couldn’t walk properly but when the shelling was becoming intense he managed to leave his apartment and came to my flat. He held my hand and embraced other relatives living with me. We started praying. We started hearing footsteps as if they surrounded our house. Baba said the end had come and that we should say our last prayers. I have never seen this kind of attack in my life. I have travelled to places with my husband as civil servant but I have never seen civilians carrying arms to fight soldiers the way they did here on Monday. Could it be that there are saboteurs among the military men, she asked.
Also another resident of Gomari, Umara, a federal civil servant said he had given up when shooting persisted till day break. “I had given up the possibility of surviving the situation. I was the only one in my compound because I had moved my family to Kaduna. My neighbor also travelled to Bauchi for a wedding and he hasn’t returned on that Monday. When the shooting started, I thought it would soon subside but it persisted. I did a quick search of my life and my way with God and then told myself the end had come,” he stated. Residents of the neighboring 777 Housing Estate along same road said the hovering of the fighter jet and the over 30 minutes of cross-fire with the insurgents frightened them, adding that the roofs of their houses shook persistently as the fighter jet deployed from Yola, Adawama State pursued the insurgents. There were several shells of bullets on the highway around the area on Monday afternoon.
Unconfirmed reports said some security personnel died in the dawn attack. Residents also said some women of easy virtue who had passed the night at the 333 Artillery after their weekend’s usual outing at the mess were also caught in the violence. As at the time of our visit on Monday afternoon, some women who lost their relations were seen crying and being condoled by friends outside the barracks gates. A middle aged man and lorry driver opposite the Air Force base and his brother were among the victims. Family of the deceased told Gov Kashim Shettima during his visit on Monday that five insurgents had stormed the house and demanded the key of a pick up van parked in the premises. Bags of beans which the driver had planned to take to the market hours later were loaded in the pick-up but his wife declined to surrender the key, a development which angered the insurgents as they shot him dead few minutes after killing his brother in a medicine shop in front of the house. The corpses of the two brothers were being prepared for burial as at the time of our visit. Also a retired military officer who recently moved into his house around Njimtilo was shot in the ensuing confusion after attempting to flee the area following heavy bombardment. “He felt he was not safe, that the insurgents could enter his house because many of them passed our area while they were fleeing at about 6.30am on Monday. So he was afraid and he fled the house, leaving his wife and children but he was killed in the process”, a neighbor of the deceased said. Hospital sources said more than 24 corpses were brought to the morgue even as officials declined to confirm this. Spokesman of the 7 Division, Col Muhammad Dole also declined to give casualty figures. “I cannot speak or give any details on the attack for now, because I am not authorized to do so,” he told journalists on Tuesday. The defense headquarters in a statement on Monday in Abuja had said 24 BokoHaram were killed but residents maintained the figure could be higher.
Residents said there are many unanswered questions for the military. Those who spoke to Sunday Sun asked whether the military was unaware of the plot to attack Maiduguri going by the rumour of impeding attacks by the insurgents. How did many of the insurgents disappear from the city without a trace till now? What is the efficacy of the state of emergency in the state and neighboring Yobe where similar attack had been carried out last month? What’s the level of commitment of the nation’s security chiefs in tackling the problem? What’s the role of intelligence gathering especially in last Monday’s attack? How did the Boko Haram move into the city in vehicles, motorcycles and bicycles with arms without anybody knowing despite the presence of security troops around the metropolis? Was the military caught napping and are those in power profiting from the crisis?
“I think there is nothing wrong now if the Army Chief moves his office temporarily to Maiduguri to personally supervise the operations against Boko Haram so as to get this problem off our neck once and for all, because the insurgency is a setback to this nation, not only to Borno or the northeast. It is high time we tackled it headlong especially before the 2015 elections,” a university don said.