, KANO, Jan 9- Boko Haram destroyed at least 16 towns and villages in a major attack in northeast Nigeria, local officials said Thursday, as President Goodluck Jonathan kicked off his campaign for re-election.
There were fears of heavy casualties in the Wednesday assault in the remote north of Borno state, which came after the militants captured the town of Baga in Borno state on Saturday, forcing at least 20,000 people to flee.
News that the insurgents had returned to the town and surrounding settlements in the Lake Chad region came as Jonathan launched his bid for a second term at a mass rally in Lagos.
But Jonathan, much criticised for his failure to end the Islamist violence, made only passing reference to the insecurity and appeared instead to blame his predecessors for failures in defence spending.
“These people did not buy anything,” he told thousands of supporters in a speech at the end of the five hour long meeting, without mentioning his critics by name.
Jonathan’s main opponent, former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, and his All Progressives Congress (APC) party, have blamed corruption for the inability to end the Boko Haram insurgency.
Soldiers have complained of a lack of weapons and even bullets to tackle the better-armed militants.
– Homes razed –
Nigerians are due to elect a new president on February 14 but there are fears that polling could be ruled out in swathes of the northeast because of the violence.
The electoral body in Africa’s leading economy and most populous nation maintains, however, that there are no plans to postpone the vote.
In a fresh indication of the scale of the rebellion, Musa Bukar, head of the Kukawa local government area, said petrol bombs and explosives were used to destroy Baga and nearby settlements.
“We have over 20,000 people displaced from Baga and surrounding villages in a camp in Maiduguri and we are making arrangements to convey another 10,000 from Monguno where they ran to,” he added.
Abubakar Gamandi, head of Borno’s fish traders union and a Baga native, also confirmed the latest attacks after local, uncorroborated reports of mass casualties.
He said 560 villagers had been stranded on an island on Lake Chad since Boko Haram first attacked in a victory which handed them control of all of Borno’s borders with Niger, Chad and Cameroon.
“They told me that some of them are dying from lack of food, cold and malaria on the mosquito infested island,” he said.
“I was in constant touch with them until this morning when the phone they were using went off which I assume was due to dead battery.”
The capture of Baga — the last government controlled town in northern Borno — and the number of displaced again lays bare the problem facing election organisers.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes by the conflict in the northeast, with insecurity preventing them from returning to vote in their towns and villages.
The APC has said the integrity of the result will be in doubt if the displaced are unable to cast their ballot.
A bill is currently going through parliament to allow those in refugee camps inside Nigeria to participate in the electoral process.
– Election issue –
Tackling Boko Haram, which wants to create a hardline Islamic state in northeast Nigeria and has captured dozens of towns in the last six months, is a major election issue.
The APC claims Buhari, as a former army general with a track record of a tough stance on corruption, will tackle insecurity better.
Analysts have seen the loss of Baga and the headquarters of the Multinational Joint Task Force as a major boost to the insurgents, handing them control of a strategic town to launch further attacks.
Jonathan’s government, however, maintains it is on top of the situation and has characterised the 72 year old Buhari as a figure of the past with outdated policies.
National security spokesman Mike Omeri told reporters in Abuja on Thursday: “Security forces are working hard to ensure the full liberation of the strategic town and other places close to it.
“Equally, (the) government is constantly reviewing the situation with regards to the fight against insurgency in order to improve logistics requirement and support for the security forces to enable the defeat of the insurgents.”