Hundreds of thousands of Nigerians fleeing Islamist militants are searching for sanctuary, say government and international relief officials, the latest fallout from Boko Haram’s campaign to seize the northeast of Africa’s most populous country.
Local authorities said Tuesday that in a fresh exodus from violence, hundreds of people continued to flee Gwoza, a town of about 50,000 near Nigeria’s remote border with Cameroon that suspected Boko Haram fighters overran last Wednesday. Boko Haram has made the surrounding Borno state the epicenter of its insurrection against Nigerian soldiers, Christians and—increasingly—civilians who stand in its way.
“They are streaming over the hillsides,” said Borno state Governor Kashim Shettima of the civilians who are trying to escape the violence.
Mr. Shettima said Nigerian officials and multinational agencies are sheltering 40,000 people in schools that had already closed because the insurgency had made them unsafe for students. In the past year, up to a million people have fled to the state capital of Maiduguri, he said, lodging with relatives and in tents at the city’s limits.
The forced migration from Nigeria’s violence is expected to strain everything from public services to food security, as a weak central government struggles to beat back the emboldened Islamist insurgency.
Boko Haram aims to impose Islamic law and has been targeting vigilante militias and the military that stand in its way. Insurgents have killed nearly 3,000 people this year, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
The turmoil has spilled across Nigeria’s porous border with Cameroon, where about half of the 10,000 residents of the town of Kolofata have fled since a suspected Boko Haram raid there two weeks ago.
“We can’t stay back there because Boko Haram had promised to return,” said Adji Seini Blama, a 52-year-old primary schoolteacher who fled to the regional capital of Maroua. Cameroon’s military has blamed the attacks on bandits rather than Boko Haram.
Manzo Ezekiel, a spokesman for Nigeria’s National Emergency Management Agency, estimated that 3 million Nigerians are facing “serious humanitarian challenges” because a breadwinner has been killed in the turmoil or they are too scared to plant the crops they will need to survive through the dry season.
At the same time, the number of farmers fleeing their land poses a threat to the country’s food supply, say aid workers. “There’s palpable fear that there may be food scarcity in the region yet this year,” said Nwakpa Nwakpa, a spokesman for the Red Cross in Nigeria.
Mohammed Ali Ndume, a senator who represents Gwoza in Nigeria’s National Assembly, called on President Goodluck Jonathan to send military reinforcements to help retake the town. “I believe the military can get into Gwoza and rescue our people,” he said.
But the army has shown little sign that it is capable of turning the tide as northeastern Nigeria has slipped deeper into lawlessness. Despite a global campaign drawing attention to more than 200 schoolgirls the militants abducted in April, the military has struggled to make much public progress toward their release.
During last week’s attack, militants wearing Nigerian army uniforms opened fire on Gwoza from Toyota Hilux pickup trucks, according to a member of a vigilante squad established to protect the town. He said at least 50 people were killed.
“I and a few other residents were able to escape to the mountains,” said the vigilante, Maina Kamusa. “Most of our wives and daughters who were unable to escape may have been abducted by Boko Haram.”
Bala Saidu, a 39-year-old vegetable farmer, also fled into the surrounding hills. Three days later he made his way to a high school in nearby Uba, where he is taking shelter with 200 other exiles from his hometown.
“We are not finding it easy here to stay fed,” Mr. Saidu said.
Many of the region’s residents are nearly as wary of soldiers as of Boko Haram militants. “How is it that your national army can’t defeat a small pocket of insurgents?” said Baba Karim, a 56-year-old engineer and retired civil servant in Maiduguri. “We’re living in a terrible kingdom.”
A spokesman for Nigeria’s military didn’t respond to calls and text messages seeking comment on Tuesday.
Although aid groups and government officials have dispatched food, blankets and medical supplies to the displaced in Uba and other towns, a senior officer for one international agency said tension between state and federal authorities has slowed the humanitarian response as well as the military campaign.
“Now the insurgents are really hitting their stride, attacking almost on a daily basis,” said the senior official, who insisted on anonymity because he said he didn’t want insurgents to target his colleagues in the region. “People’s ability to cope is gradually being stripped.”