Specifics elusive in Nigeria’s extremist fight

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Women shop in a market in Maiduguri, Nigeria, Thursday, June 6, 2013. Maiduguri is the heart of Nigeria’s Islamic insurgency. Military officials took journalists on a tour there Thursday, but largely declined to give specific answers about what’s happening in the country’s fight against the extremists. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)
 
by Jon Gambrell

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (AP) — Military commanders promised a tour of this northeast Nigeria city, the birthplace of the nation’s Islamic extremist insurgency, to show the busy streets and people selling fruits from wheelbarrows pressed right up against the road.

But the scars of the almost three-year insurgency still could be seen from shops burnt by soldiers, a major hotel firebombed and the sandbagged embankments hiding soldiers pointing heavy machine guns at passing traffic.

These two visions of Maiduguri, a bustling state capital by day and an eerie ghost town of barking stray dogs and empty streets by 8 p.m., represents the difficulty of knowing what exactly is happening as Nigeria’s military continues its offensive against the extremists.

While the military presents an optimistic view about the gains they’ve made, they continually refuse to offer any specifics about the ongoing fighting. But with mobile phone networks shut down in the region, it is only their word that gets publicized by the nation’s newspapers and broadcasters in this shadow war.

“The operation is still on and the information is being collated,” Brig. Gen. Chris Olukolade, the military’s top spokesman, said Thursday when pressed by journalists for any specifics on civilian or military casualties. “In many locations, we are still mopping up and until we finish mopping up, it is wrong to give you any inaccurate figure.”

Foreign and local journalists who accompanied soldiers on a two-day trip into the northeast to see the offensive heard the same thing repeatedly from military commanders.

The offensive comes after President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency May 14 in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states — a territory of around 155,000 square kilometers (60,000 square miles) of the Sahel bordering Cameroon, Chad and Niger. In a nationally televised speech, Jonathan admitted the nation had lost control of some villages and towns to extremist fighters already responsible for more than 1,600 killings since 2010 alone, according to an Associated Press count.

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