Nigeria's army gunning for Boko Haram
- 7 June 2013
- From the section Africa
"It was like a military coup here two months ago when all the government officials ran away," said a white-bearded elder in Kirenowa, as he described how his village in northern-eastern Nigeria came under the control of the Islamist group known as Boko Haram.
"We were in real difficulty when Boko Haram were here; life was terrible - they extorted our money," he told the BBC in the village which lies just 40km (24 miles) from the porous border with Cameroon.
"They were moving around in the village with their cars - they went to [nearby] places like Chikunguldo and Wulgo as well as inside Chad."
A short distance along the sandy road within the district of Marte there are the hallmarks of the militants; the burnt-out church and the remains of the village police station which was also gutted by fire.
In front of the roofless, blackened building is the carcass of a burnt car.
The Nigerian military offered to take journalists in a protected convoy to these areas of Borno state in an effort to highlight what it describes as key gains in the fight against Boko Haram.
Just over three weeks ago President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in the north-east.
He announced a renewed military offensive after making the somewhat surprising announcement that Nigerian territory had been seized by Boko Haram.
Earlier this year Boko Haram's black flag replaced Nigeria's green and white one in several villages of Borno state, including Marte - a sign that the insurgents were under little pressure from the Nigerian armed forces.
These areas close to the shrinking shores of Lake Chad are extremely remote and poor.
Travelling by road north-east from the state capital, Maiduguri, the crumbling infrastructure is evident.
Sections of the tarmac road look as though they have been hit by an earthquake and drivers are forced to take to the sand which is steadily swallowing the concrete, cable-less electricity poles.
'Fled to Chad'
It is no surprise that decades of neglect by successive governments and the biting poverty played into the hands of the jihadists looking for recruits.
"Some of them join because they are interested in handling guns because that's new to them, and some are aware that it is a way of getting some money," said a young man in his early 20s, who pointed to the lack of job opportunities in the area.
"All we do is fishing and farming, although some of us engage in the black market selling fuel or petty trading."
We were driven to a former Boko Haram camp north of the village of Kirenowa.
The presence of items such as medical gloves suggest there may have been a small clinic there, although it is impossible to know how many people ever stayed on the site.
An initial security briefing said there was no fight for the camp - Boko Haram members set fire to the vehicles they could not move and fled before the military moved into the area.
Journalists were later told the militants were preparing to leave when the air force and ground troops struck.
"Some of them have been able to withdraw to Chad and we are making efforts to pursue them," said Lt Col Danladi Hassan who was the commander in charge of the operation to retake the camps.
Was he surprised that they had managed to establish bases? It seems not.
"We've been hearing about the camp for some time and we've been planning for it," said Lt Col Hassan.
"And that's why we came in and ensured they were dislodged."
You might wonder why, if the army knew about the Boko Haram camps, they took time before targeting them, seeing as the nearby villages were steadily sliding out of the government's hands and the Islamist militants were starting to hold territory.
A teacher in Marte who did not want his name revealed said they were forcing changes on the village back in January.
"Boko Haram are the ones who told us to close the school because they don't want to see any western education," he said.
"We are now preparing to re-open the school with the arrival of the army and we are now free."
When we visited Kirenowa with the army, the entire village had gathered and applauded on cue as the Nigerian military was lauded - it may have felt like a publicity stunt but people I spoke to said they were glad the military operation had dislodged Boko Haram.
But dislodging is not the same as defeating and so far there has been little evidence to suggest many fighters have been killed in the offensive - they have been disorganised and dispersed.
"The next stage is to consolidate and ensure miscreants and troublemakers in the form of terrorists don't have access to civilian areas where they can cause problems," says military spokesman Brigadier General Chris Olukolade.
Members of the Islamist group are known to live among the civilian population so the military faces a tough challenge.
"Do you think there could be any Boko Haram members amongst the assembled villagers here?" I asked one man sitting on the ground.
"No, I'm not aware of any," he replied in a whisper.
The Nigerian army tried to crush the Islamist militants in 2009 but the group came back stronger with more deadly attacks. So do people think Boko Haram can return to the area?
"We don't know," a man in Marte tells me.
"We are in the hands of God. We don't know what is going to happen. Only God knows."