83 Nigerian soldiers missing after Boko Haram attack

Senior military officers say 83 soldiers are missing after Boko Haram Islamic extremists attacked a remote base in northeastern Nigeria. Widows of civilians who joined the fight against Boko Haram were given food aid last week, after months of neglect.

As famine threatens, 150 widows of civilians who fought extremists received food aid last week

A soldier walks past a checkpoint in Bama, Borno State, Nigeria on Aug. 31, 2016. Senior military officers say 83 soldiers are missing after Boko Haram Islamic extremists attacked a remote base in northeastern Nigeria. (Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters)

Senior military officers say 83 soldiers are missing after Boko Haram Islamic extremists attacked a remote base in northeastern Nigeria.

Officers said the soldiers were unable to fight back because they were poorly equipped. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to give information to reporters.

Army spokesman Col. Sani Kukasheka Usman said last week that some soldiers were missing and 13 wounded when the insurgents attacked their base in Gashigar village, on the border with Niger, on Oct. 17. Usman has not responded to requests for comment about the actual number missing.

Officers say dozens of fleeing troops jumped into the Niger River and 22 were pulled from the water by soldiers from the neighbouring country. They say many may have drowned.

The fight for arms

President Muhammadu Buhari promised to better arm Nigeria's military when he was elected in March 2015, blaming corruption for the deaths of thousands, including soldiers in the seven-year-old Islamic insurgency that has killed more than 20,000 people.

Billions of dollars meant to buy arms were stolen or diverted to the presidential campaign of former president Goodluck Jonathan, according to ongoing court cases.

A man cycles past a military truck in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria on Aug. 31, 2016. President Muhammadu Buhari promised to better arm Nigeria's military when he was elected in March 2015. (Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters)

Military officers also are currently facing courts martial for allegedly selling arms and ammunition to Boko Haram, indicating the corruption bedeviling the country's fight against the Islamic extremists continues despite government efforts to halt graft.

Still, the military in the past year has succeeded in dislodging the insurgents from most towns and villages where they had set up an Islamic caliphate. But the extremists continue to attack remote villages and main roads that they have mined. Nigeria's army has reported thwarting and killing several suicide bombers in the past month.

Thousands join local militias

During its seven-year uprising, Boko Haram extremists have more than 2.6 million in Nigeria and neighbouring Cameroon, Niger and Chad. 

Frustrated by the ineffective military response, thousands of ordinary residents in northeastern Nigeria joined local militias.

In Borno, most signed up for the same one as Mbasaru's husband, the "Civilian JTF," a play on the acronym used to describe the joint military and police taskforce in the region.

A member of a civilian vigilante group holds a hunting rifle while a woman pumps water into jerrycans in Kerawa, Cameroon, on March 16, 2016. Kerawa is on the border with Nigeria and is subject to frequent Boko Haram attacks. Outside Nigeria, Cameroon has been hardest hit by Boko Haram. (Joe Penney/Reuters)

Often armed with only machetes, iron bars and batons, the men worked to round up suspected Boko Haram fighters and intercept suicide bombers. They soon became targets, and since 2013 nearly 700 have been killed, according to Jibrin Gunda, legal adviser to Civilian JTF.

While praising the sacrifice of the fighters, the government has done very little to help their families adjust to life without them, Gunda said. 

"Many of them had wives and many children. They had their aged parents who were part of their dependents, and who are now bereaved," Gunda said.

The United Nations has already warned that tens of thousands among the 2.6 million people forced from their homes by the insurgency are facing famine-like conditions that already are killing children.

Widows say aid is overdue

After her husband was killed by a Boko Haram suicide bomber late last year, Hajjagana Mbasaru was forced to pull her children from school and rely on friends to feed them.

Like other widows of civilians fighting the Islamic extremists in northern Nigeria, she spent long months waiting for any kind of government support.

Finally, last week, officials in northeastern Borno state stepped up with a small handout: two bags of rice and some beans. Though modest, Mbasaru said it was a welcome change from months of being ignored.

"I am indeed very happy that, for once, the government has remembered me," Mbasaru said.

Women gather at a water collecting point at the internally displaced people's camp in Bama, Borno State, Nigeria, on Aug. 31, 2016. Last week, officials in northeastern Borno state stepped up with a small handout for widows of civilians who fought Islamic extremists. (Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters)

Larger aid program planned

Last week's distribution of food is part of a broader program intended to make up for that neglect, said Satomi Ahmad, executive chairman of Borno's emergency management agency. More than 150 widows such as Mbasaru were selected to be part of the first round of beneficiaries, and more will be included in the weeks to come, he said.

It was not clear whether families would get just one distribution of food or be able to receive the handouts multiple times.

The idea originated with current vigilante fighters who pleaded for support for the families of their fallen comrades, Ahmad said. 

"We immediately welcomed the idea because these are youth who volunteered to sacrifice their lives in safeguarding the territorial integrity and internal security of our nation. And the majority of them were breadwinners for their families," he said.

That was the case for Hauwa Li's husband, a businessman who died fighting Boko Haram last year.

A woman carries dried grass on her head in a community for internally displaced people in Maiduguri, Nigeria, on March 9, 2016. A Nigerian government push to strangle Boko Haram shut down Maiduguri's cattle trade, leaving many residents with no livelihood. (Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters)

"He joined the militia because, at the time, Boko Haram were just killing everyone," Li said. "About 20 months ago, when they set out for the bush, he didn't come back alive. They brought his corpse alongside others who were killed."

Li, a 30-year-old homemaker, was left alone to support six children under 12. She has worked to find odd jobs to help her family, but she often falls short. "The days we sleep with hunger are more than the days we have our stomachs filled up," she said.

Though they were surprised not to have received any state aid earlier, the widows who picked up food last week said their families are grateful for the help.

Fadi Ali, a 41-year-old widow with 10 children, held back tears as she looked at the bags of food that had been placed at her feet. "God has made provisions for every mouth that needs to eat," she said.

A girl displaced by Islamist extremists carries empty plastic containers at a camp Maiduguri, Nigeria, on Aug. 28, 2016. (Sunday Alamba/Associated Press)

In addition to helping these families, Ahmad said officials hoped the food distribution program will motivate the civilian defence fighters who are still battling the extremists: "We believe it will help to boost the morale of those who are still active in the ongoing war against terrorism."