More than one year after Boko Haram militants kidnapped nearly 300 schoolgirls, officials in Nigeria continue to grapple with how to defeat the jihadist group.
Among the new challenges are the recent attacks on civilians that, some experts say, are evidence the situation is getting worse.
“In the last five weeks of the new administration [President Muhammadu Buhari], there have been more deaths than in the last six weeks of the previous administration [Goodluck Jonathan] – it's averaged a hundred deaths a week,” said Emmanuel Ogebe, an international human rights lawyer, who just returned from a trip to the region.
On Sunday, the terrorist group killed 44 people after launching a string of attacks in central Nigeria. Since the conflict began in 2009, at least 17,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the fighting, according to Amnesty International.
Ogebe believes “the military advantage has gone to Boko Haram.” The election of Buhari, a Muslim, won’t change the current status quo, he predicts. “If anything, I thought it would spiral up because this doesn’t appease them -- they are trying to send a message that there may be new players in the presidency, but Boko Haram is a potent threat.”
During the presidential campaign earlier this year, Buhari had pledged to take a tougher stance against Boko Haram than Jonathan.
“The president really campaigned on two planks on his platform – restore security in Nigeria and . . . fight against corruption,” said John Campbell, former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria.
While Nigeria had success in pushing back the terrorists from some areas in February and March, he says, officials “overestimated the apparent victory of the military. It appears Boko Haram just changed tactics” and are now pushing back.
Boko Haram is finding renewed success, experts say, by exploiting the near even divide of Christians and Muslims living in the country.
“This comes with some tensions … southern Christians feel that northern Muslims tend to want to dominate the country, and when a group like [Boko Haram] comes and wants to impose Sharia [law] on everyone” this increases fears, said Ogebe.
Nigerian concerns came to a tipping point on April 14-15, 2014, in the town of Chibok when militants kidnapped more than 270 girls from a boarding school. The terrorists in a later video referred to the girls as “slaves,” with many feared to be victims of child trafficking.
A human rights activist told the Associated Press Wednesday that Boko Haram is offering to free more than 200 girls and women they’ve kidnapped from the school. Yet it's unknown if the terror group's proposal will be taken seriously by Nigerian officials.
Looking ahead, Campbell believes Boko Haram can’t be defeated just by an intensified military campaign. “Boko Haram is going to have to be countered by a multi-faceted approach that includes an economic, social and political” strategy that makes marginalized Nigerians feel included. He says this seems promising as Buhari’s government is taking the first steps in this direction.