Dressed in full military fatigue and armed with anti-aircraft guns, rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) and a fleet of armoured tanks that they stole from Nigerian soldiers, the Boko Haram insurgents now stage bolder attacks and even overrun federal troops in northeast Nigeria.
There are fears that the continued attacks on the military and the looting of arms by Boko Haram also threatens the fragile peace being enjoyed by residents of Maiduguri in the past three months. There are also concerns that Boko Haram’s continued attacks on towns and villages located around a 100 km radius of Maiduguri, could possibly weaken the defence around the capital city.
In the past month, Boko Haram has carried out several gory attacks on both civilians and soldiers on the five major routes that lead in or out of Maiduguri, and these point of attacks are all less than 80km away from, Maiduguri.
Last Tuesday, Boko Haram gunmen, in their hundreds, staged their second attack in a week on the town of Benisheik, 75 km away from Maiduguri. They left at least 140 persons either injured or dead. About a hundred homes and businesses premises were burnt and scores of vehicles, including military tanks, looted.
PREMIUM TIMES visited Benisheik and interviewed some eyewitness and victims of that bloody attack.
Carnage on the road
A commercial cab driver, Sani Babayo, said it was another day of horror along the Kano-Maiduguri Highway.
“We thought they were soldiers because their uniforms, vehicles and guns suggested so,” recalled Mr. Babayo. “But when they ordered us to come down from the vehicle and began to ask if we are residents of Maiduguri, it immediately dawned on us that we had fallen into the hands of Boko Haram.
“After separating the women and girls from the group, they ordered the men to run into the bush for our lives. No sooner had we started running than they opened fire on us. I saw many of my passengers fall after being hit by flying bullets. I kept running for my dear life until I was out of their range of fire.”
Mr. Babayo, who looked dishevelled with tell-tale bruises on his skin and blistered feet, was among few of the very lucky travellers who escaped the Tuesday carnage. Many did not.
Most of the victims were those who had gone to make phone calls in the neighbouring Yobe State capital, Damaturu, 136 km from Maiduguri.
For four months now, telecom lines have been grounded as a security strategy to combat Boko Haram. Residents of Borno State, since the restoration of phones lines in Yobe State, had had to travel over there to make calls.
A young woman, Sarah Hyeladi, was returning to Maiduguri from Damaturu, where she and her elder brother, Markus, had gone to make phones calls when they encountered gunmen. Ms. Hyeladi was lucky but her elder brother was not.
“When our vehicle was stopped at about 6 p.m., and we saw how those ahead were being shot at, Markus and I had to run into the bush, but suddenly some uniformed gunmen appeared from the bush and ordered us to go back,” Ms. Hyeladi recalled.
“We had to comply because one man was pointing a big gun at us. As we were going towards where people were being killed, one of the gunmen dragged Markus and put a knife on his neck. Before I could beg them to spare him, my brother was writhing on the floor in a pool of his own blood.”
“Many people died from bullet wounds but a lot were killed by something that looked like an electric saw; the moment they put it on a person’s neck, the head will go off,” said a middle aged woman who was spared.
“They asked us to get out of the vehicle and ordered the men to start running into the bush, then they would shoot at them,” said the woman who wouldn’t say her name.
“They were heartless and wicked in the way they took people’s lives. Most of them speak Hausa, some Kanuri but others who don’t look like Nigerians speak some foreign language,”she said.
A soldier in Benisheik said they could not stand the superior fire power of Boko Haram.
“They were using anti-aircraft guns while we were using AK47 rifles and some RPGs. They came in droves driving about 20 pickup trucks accompanied by two light armored tankers, all wearing our military colours – desert-camo . We had to retreat to our base to reinforce after running out of arms. But they followed us down there, surrounded our base and began to to shell our building. We couldn’t stand the heat of their superior fire power. We had to retreat into the village after they killed two of our soldiers and three policemen. They left with an armoured tanker and four military patrol trucks,” the soldier said.
At the palace of the district head of Benisheik, where vehicles were taken away and one burnt, a staff, Abacha Wakil, narrated to journalists how the gunmen attacked and beheaded people in the village.
“The Boko Haram gunmen invaded the town at about 7:45 p.m., after attacking the military base at the outskirts of the town. The soldier ran to us here at the palace of the District Head and warned us to run for our dear lives. They said they had ran out of ammunition and the terrorists are carrying sophisticated arms.
“No sooner had the soldiers warned us than the Boko Haram gunmen arrived in droves; all dressed in military uniforms and carrying guns. They came in about 30 vehicles. We had to run for our lives. I took refuge inside the millet plantation near the District Head’s palace. The gunmen spread out and began to shoot and set houses ablaze. They did not leave until about 3:30 am. We all spent the night inside the bush. In the morning, we found that they had beheaded 14 persons, mostly those in the Civilian-JTF, and left with at least 21 vehicles and a Tata truck filled with food items looted from the shops they also set ablaze.”
Mr. Wakil said most of the young men killed were beheaded.
“Their bodies were completely separated from their bodies. The death could have been more if the soldiers had not run down to warn us in good time that we should run for dear lives.”
Environmental health workers, who continued to pick corpses even as late as Friday, said they could not venture into the bushes to search for dead bodies.
“We only pick those not far away from the road sides. We understand most of them died while running away from bullets while others were found without their heads. Even if we later found the heads we often don’t know which head belonged to whom.
“We believe there could be more corpses ahead in the bush because others could have ran further before they died. But after today, Thursday, their bodies cannot be picked because even the ones we had picked now have decompsed already,” said the Environmental official who declined mentioning his name for official reasons.
Some of the corpses that were conveyed to Maiduguri could not be identified because they either had their heads cut off or their faces shattered by bullets.
It was an emotional sight when the daughter of a woman, who had given up searching for the body of their father, suddenly pointed at a swollen decapitated body shouting, “Mummy, this is daddy’s shoe, this is daddy,”
And when the mother searched the pockets of the headless corpse, they found her husband’s ID card. The woman and her daughter caused everyone gathered to shed tears when the daughter tearfully asked, “Daddy where is your head?”
Hundreds of residents have since fled Benisheik in fear of another possible attack.
“If they could walk over soldiers and send them running for their lives, who are we to remain here?” Bala Sanusi, a local butcher said.
Promises and compensation
Borno State governor, Kashim Shettima, who visited the village on Thursday, pleaded for residents to remain in their homes and not to flee. He said more security would be provided to guard the community.
He approved the sum of N50 million for the reconstruction of the damaged towns, while the sum of N250,000 would be given as compensation to the family of the 14 people slain in the village.
The Brigade Commander of Borno State, Muhammed Yusuf, explained to the few confused villagers that the army did not abandon them, but only left to get more arms after running out of the ones they had.
There are lots of concerns by embattled residents of Borno State who see the Federal Government as playing lip service to the issue of insecurity. Many had wondered why the almighty Nigeria Army still found it so difficult dealing with Boko Haram once and for all.
Many are of the view that the military hierarchy, although losing personnel and equipment, are making huge pocket-lining gains out of the monies the Federal Government is pumping into the state towards tackling the violence and insecurity.
The Borno State House of Assembly, on Friday, faulted the way the Federal Government was dealing with the situation. The lawmakers felt the situation was getting worse; particularly, with the increasing attacks.
They urged the Federal Government to step up its act by giving the military a marching order to utilise modern and appropriate equipment and technology to solve the Boko Haram crisis once and for all.
A top public affairs commentator, who does not want to be named for fear he might be targeted by the military, told PREMIUM TIMES, “We, as group of concerned citizens, are compiling our dossier on how the military hierarchy may have been feeding fat on these crisis from the billions of naira federal government spends to end the insurgency.”