The two most prominent jihadist groups in Nigeria have been engaged in bloody battles with unprecedented intensity for the past weeks for the long-awaited control of their stronghold in the north-east of the country, according to security sources and local residents.
For 14 years, a jihadist rebellion has been prevailing in Borno state, where Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa (ISWAP) control large areas of it and intensify attacks, posing a major challenge to President-elect Paula Tinubu.
The two rival groups began a long time ago, firstly because of ideological differences, as the Islamic State in West Africa, which arose in 2016 as a result of a split within the Boko Haram group, opposes the killing of Muslims.
This rivalry has since morphed into a war for hegemony in and around the Lake Chad basin, with both groups wielding influence. In the past weeks, the battles have intensified, causing hundreds of deaths, especially in the villages of Jerir and Juma Toro, near the border with Niger.
“We are aware of the battles between the terrorists, which is good for us, so we are watching to see how the situation develops,” a Nigerian intelligence source told AFP.
“It is difficult to give a toll that includes both sides, but the numbers are huge. We are talking about more than 200 dead, only on Toro Friday,” added this source, who declined to be named.
Fishermen on the islands of Lake Chad say they heard explosions and heavy gunfire emanating from the villages of Jiri and Juma Toro.
“The battles are very intense, we hear loud explosions, especially at night,” one of them, Abu Bakr Elka, told AFP.
“According to the information we are receiving, the battles may continue for some time because Boko Haram is bringing in more weapons from its stronghold on the Niger side of the lake,” he added.
Join or die
The Lake Chad Basin, whose shores stretch between Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad, is a vast expanse of water, islets and marshes where Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa have established sanctuaries.
The recent confrontations began on February 19, when fighters from Boko Haram stormed the camps of the Islamic State organization in West Africa in Tombon Gini Kaiwa, according to another fisherman.
Abu Bakr Qenai, a senior leader of Boko Haram, with the help of two of his aides, launched an attack on two islands controlled by the Islamic State in West Africa, stormed a prison and released many detainees and hostages, according to the same source.
This fisherman, who refused to reveal his name, said, “The confrontations continued from dawn until 17:00, and forced the Islamic State in West Africa to abandon the two camps.”
He added that Boko Haram members “have vowed to take back all the islands that they say belonged to them before the Islamic State in West Africa took control of them.”
In response, ASOAP launched attacks on Boko Haram camps near the Sambisa Forest, a well-known haven for jihadists, killing several people, according to Ibrahim Liman, a local militia leader.
On February 24, on the eve of the presidential elections, Boko Haram fighters also fled, leading to the surrender of hundreds of them and their families, Lehman added.
The Nigerian army announced that last week it killed “about thirty terrorists” from Boko Haram and arrested 960 others, including women and children who fled from neighboring Nigeria.
ASOAP became the dominant group in the region after the killing of Boko Haram’s historical leader Abubakar Shekau in May 2021 during infighting. Fearing that they would be executed, some Boko Haram fighters joined the ASOAP while others surrendered or fled.
Paula Tinubu, who was elected president of Africa’s most populous country at the end of February, promised a massive recruitment of police and army personnel. But experts fear that without a new strategy and reform of the security forces, the “dead end” in the northeast of the country will continue.
Since the start of the Boko Haram insurgency in 2009, the conflict has killed more than 40,000 people and displaced two million people, according to the United Nations.