KANO, Nigeria, Jul 15 – Nigeria’s military has clawed back swathes of territory held by Boko Haram, opening up routes once infested with Islamist fighters, allowing life to resume for people in the remote region.
But locals in the northeast say the Islamists are still a security risk and far from defeated, sounding a note of caution to government and military claims that victory is near.
Aid agencies meanwhile have said parts of Borno state remain inaccessible, highlighting the threat of severe acute malnutrition and even famine to tens of thousands of people.
Certainly there has been progress compared to 2014, when the militants controlled territory the size of Belgium with a self-declared caliphate that threatened Nigeria’s sovereignty.
Last week the military announced the reopening of the strategic 140-kilometre (87-mile) trade route linking the Borno state capital Maiduguri to Gamboru on the border with Cameroon.
Trucks laden with goods and passenger vehicles have since been plying the road under military escort and a state government committee has been formed to oversee transportation.
“From our records over 5,000 people have returned to Gamboru in the past week following the reopening of the route,” one official on the committee, who asked not to be identified, told AFP.
“We have so far organised two trips to Gamboru involving 100 articulated trucks and 116 passenger vehicles.”
Boko Haram seized Gamboru in August 2014, forcing thousands to flee to Fotokol on the other side of the river that forms the border with Cameroon.
Chadian forces, who have been involved in the regional counter-insurgency, retook Gamboru in February 2015, after intense fighting that left hundreds of insurgents dead.
Residents began returning the following month and since the road reopened, there has been “a huge influx” of people from Maiduguri, said resident Umar Ari.
“Commercial activities are fast picking up with the resumption of supply of goods from Maiduguri. Some people have started rebuilding their homes,” he added.
“Residents of Gamboru have resumed work on their farms that have been lying fallow for two crop seasons.”
But it is a fragile peace, as Boko Haram is still attacking villages and Nigerian troops in the region.
On Tuesday, militant fighters launched a fierce offensive on soldiers in the garrison town of Kangarwa, on the shores of Lake Chad, which was retaken by forces three weeks ago.
The troops repelled the three-hour attack, with air support from Chad. Two soldiers were killed and there were “tremendous” casualties for Boko Haram, according to the Nigerian army.
Still not safe
Boko Haram fighters have moved into the area around Lake Chad, where Nigeria meets Niger, Chad and Cameroon, to escape military offensives elsewhere.
Last week the head of Nigeria’s army, Lieutenant-General Tukur Yusuf Buratai, said “Boko Haram remnants” had been pushed out to border areas.
Troops have mounted an offensive against Boko Haram’s Sambisa Forest stronghold in Borno since late April, forcing fighters to relocate to dozens of small islands on the freshwater lake.
The islands’ dense vegetation provides sanctuary from attacks while there is water to drink and fish to eat, according to locals in Jibillaram village, which was recently liberated.
“They live on the islets from where they launch attacks on villages to loot food and other supplies because they can’t feed on fish alone,” said villager Mele Abor.
More than 4,000 residents of Jibillaram and nearby villages were brought to a camp in Gamboru last month.
The island of Karamga, on the Nigerien part of Lake Chad, has been Boko Haram’s most strategic sanctuary, according to one civilian vigilante assisting the military against the rebels.
Saleh Wal-Sayinna said from there, the group can access supply routes for arms from lawless Libya smuggled through the Sahel.
Boko Haram attacked Karamga on April 25 last year in speedboats, killing at least 74, including Nigerien soldiers. A week later, the authorities ordered residents to leave.
The pretext was a planned military offensive but it was never carried out and since then Boko Haram has occupied the islet.
The Nigerian Navy has said it is planning to put gunboats on Lake Chad, and the borders are expected to be targeted in operations of the regional military coalition — when it officially deploys.
Karamga is considered strategic as it sits among a maze of waterways and swampland straddling the four countries’ littoral borders.
“As long as Karamga is not retaken there will be no end in Boko Haram attacks because it is their supply line for arms from Libya,” said Wal-Sayinna.