Nigerian Army Noticeably Absent in Town Taken From Boko Haram

DAMASAK, Nigeria — Boko Haram’s black flag is everywhere in the town of Damasak, deep in Islamist-held territory in northern Nigeria: It is painted on former administrative buildings and schools, and on the side of abandoned gas stations.

The other unmistakable sign of the Islamist militants’ recent presence is that practically none of the residents are left in a once-thriving town of 200,000. They have either fled to the state capital, Maiduguri, or been killed by Boko Haram. Every looted and battered storefront yawns open to the dusty roadside.

Mostly, the only sound in the hot, still air is from military vehicles, carrying soldiers from the neighboring countries of Chad and Niger as they make their way through the wreckage of the deadly five-month Islamist occupation of this Nigerian town. From time to time, the Chadian soldiers ululate to celebrate their victory against the militants in a fierce firefight that stretched into this week.

The Chadians ushered a small group of journalists around for a brief look at their handiwork this week, offering a rare glimpse into the group’s northern Nigerian stronghold, and into the dimensions, and difficulties, of a cross-border, four-nation fight against the Islamists.

Chadian soldiers in Damasak on Wednesday, only days after the town was liberated from Boko Haram militants. CreditTyler Hicks/The New York Times

Rather than a display of important regional cooperation in the battle against Boko Haram, the visit instead pointed out some of the confusion and resentment that are creating tension among neighbors. The soldiers from Chad and Niger had succeeded here, but there was not a single Nigerian soldier to be found. The force members were bewildered to find themselves as foreign liberators without any help from the Nigerians.

Even as the Nigerian government, with a national election looming, insists that its forces have chased Boko Haram fighters out of much of their northern territory, the deserted streets and all-foreign force here paint a different picture. Hundreds of thousands of Nigerians still cannot return home to towns that have been, nominally at least, freed from Boko Haram.

But the foreign soldiers here said they do not want to occupy somebody else’s country, and worry that the Islamist fighters will simply return if they leave and the Nigerians have not arrived to take over.

Hundreds of miles away in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, officials are expressing anger at the near-total absence of cooperation from the Nigerians in a crucial regional battle, even as Nigerian officials are discounting the extent of Chad’s role.

The disquiet of the Chadian officials was echoed in the words of the front-line Chadian soldiers here who wonder why they, and not the Nigerians, are holding towns like Damasak, several days after the last Boko Haram fighter has fled or been killed.

“We asked them to come, to receive this town from us, but they have not come,” said Second Lt. Mohammed Hassan, resting in the shade of the armored vehicle he had manned with his company.

“It is because they are afraid,” Lieutenant Hassan added, spitting out the words, his face half-hiddenagainst the 107-degree heat in a black turban.

Around him hundreds of soldiers from Chad and Niger were camped out under the broiling sun. The senior Chadian officers tried to shoo away a handful of journalists, but a few of the soldiers, like the lieutenant, still wanted to talk about the battle.

“We fought on the night of the 14th, and the last attack was on the 15th,” Lieutenant Hassan said. As for the Nigerians, “we called them on the 16th” — after the fight for Damasak had ended — “and told them to come; they didn’t believe we were here,” Lieutenant Hassan said.

More politely, his country’s foreign minister, Moussa Faki Mahamat, two hours away by military transport plane and helicopter in N’Djamena, offered a similar appraisal in an interview Thursday.

“The Nigerian Army has not succeeded in facing up to Boko Haram,” Mr. Mahamat said.

“The occupation of these towns, this is up to Nigeria,” he added. “My fondest wish is that they assume their responsibilities.”

The soldiers around Lieutenant Hassan, savoring their victory over Boko Haram, displayed a pile of battered rifles captured from the Islamists, some with Arabic exhortations on the stocks. The men said they had thoroughly searched the looted town and its parched savanna surroundings in the past two days, and there was not a single Boko Haram fighter to be found.

The fight was definitely over, several of the men said with satisfaction, noting with wonder the strange fighting habits and beliefs of their opponents.

Soldiers from Chad played cards in Damasak. The force members were bewildered at having become foreign liberators without any help from the Nigerians. CreditTyler Hicks/The New York Times

“You would say that these are people ready to die, to commit suicide,” Lieutenant Hassan said.

He recounted how, after the battle, a Boko Haram prisoner seemed terrified by the Chadians’ superior matériel — Chad has perhaps the region’s best-equipped army after decades of war, civil and external. The captured fighter insisted that the lieutenant’s armored personnel carrier was self-driving and ate its opponents.

As a convoy of military vehicles rumbled down the deserted main street, a solitary older couple could be glimpsed at the back of a mud-walled compound. The woman raised clenched fists to the sky, despairingly, as the trucks passed. The soldiers said that the handful of people left in Damasak were simply too feeble to move.

Boko Haram captured the town late in November, according to Nigerian news accounts. The fighters infiltrated Damasak’s extensive market — on the border with Niger, and close to Cameroon, it was until recently a major regional trading hub — and killed merchants there to sow terror in the population, its customary method. Another group of fighters was waiting at the town’s edge and overran government buildings as the remaining soldiers were occupied at the market.

Since then, Damasak had become a regional headquarters for Boko Haram, officials in Maiduguri said. “Damasak is where they were doing their planning and operational business,” said an official close to the governor of Borno State, of which Maiduguri is the capital.

The number of substantial buildings bearing the Boko Haram insignia was testimony to the town’s strategic role for the group. “They were coordinating and doing all their training there,” the official said.

Now Damasak, like much of northeastern Nigeria, is in a vacuum. Boko Haram has been chased away for now, but it is not clear that the Nigerian Army is ready to occupy and hold this and other towns.

“It is up to them to hold the town. Not us. Our role is offensive. Our mission is to chase the terrorists,” Lieutenant Hassan said. “But they are afraid,” he repeated angrily.

“Our biggest wish is that the Nigerian Army pulls itself together — that it takes responsibility in the towns,” said Mr. Mahamat, the Chadian foreign minister. “We are ready to disengage, right away.”