Risking my life to find Nigeria's Boko Haram
- 31 March 2014
- From the section Africa
The conflict between Nigeria's army and Islamist group Boko Haram has killed some 1,500 people so far this year, according to human rights group Amnesty International. Despite a state of emergency, attacks have intensified. The BBC's Will Ross speaks to a man who risked his life in a failed attempt to track down the militants.
"As soon as we began climbing the hills, the Boko Haram fighters started shooting down at us," says John as he describes the beginning of a military operation to flush the Islamist militants out of their hideouts on the slopes of the remote Mandara Mountains along the border with Cameroon.
Being from the area and knowing the terrain well, John told the BBC that last year he offered to guide the Nigerian military to the Boko Haram fighters.
But he said the whole operation ran into problems when the local civilian self-defence group, known as the civilian Joint Task Force, joined the soldiers.
"The soldiers all met in the village and then suddenly a civilian defence force came to join us. But I could see that there were more than 20 Boko Haram members amongst that group," he said, adding it would be futile to fight the Islamist militants when you have Boko Haram members amongst your own force.
I asked him what made him so certain that they were part of Boko Haram.
John's answer suggests the Islamist militants are extremely enmeshed in the community.
"We all lived in the same area. We reared cattle together. I know their faces. I grew up with them. Some of my cousins are members of Boko Haram - one of them is a commander who is younger than me - he's 33."
Some of the men he was looking at, he said, were the very people who had earlier attacked many homes in his village.
A soldier then asked him to point out the Boko Haram members amongst the civilian JTF but they suddenly started fleeing.
"Another soldier grabbed me round the neck and said the recruits had already sworn on the holy Koran that they they were not members of Boko Haram. He accused me of causing confusion."
The operation never took off.
Although hard to prove, John is convinced that local officials have been protecting the insurgents. He says the Ciroma or local chief, has opposed efforts to attack them in the Mandara Mountains and through the recruitment process he ensured the civilian JTF was infiltrated by Boko Haram members.
Boko Haram at a glance
- Founded in 2002
- Initially focused on opposing Western education - Boko Haram means "Western education is forbidden" in the Hausa language
- Launched military operations in 2009 to create Islamic state
- Thousands killed, mostly in north-eastern Nigeria - also attacked police and UN headquarters in capital, Abuja
- Some three million people affected
- Declared terrorist group by US in 2013
"Of course the traditional rulers and politicians have their hand in it," he says.
Some analysts have long argued that politicians are supporting the insurgents. Although there have been a couple of arrests, no case has ever been proven in court.
Corruption is also often cited as playing a major role in fuelling the war. For as long as the conflict is raging, massive security budgets are allocated and are easily diverted.
By opposing Boko Haram, John says his own life is now in danger.
"Of course they are after my life. Boko Haram said they would kill me wherever they find me," he said. describing how he and a friend escaped to Cameroon.
"They surrounded my house at night. But I escaped and hid in the bush. We went to a village near the Cameroonian border and slept there.
"They came and surrounded the entire village. But we knew all the routes on the mountain so went into one of the caves which led through to another opening on the other side of the hill."
'Nothing to lose'
Having grown up with people who went on to become Boko Haram members, I wondered why he felt they had joined the insurgents.
"They are being cajoled into it by telling them that this is a holy war and they being supplied with weapons, real weapons."
The Nigerian military says it is once again trying to attack the Islamist militants in the hills and mountains near the border. John says he is still ready to help.
"If the army trusts us, we are willing. We know every cave on the mountain and we know all the routes that they use so we will finish them up."
"I have nothing to lose. They have killed so many people."