Soldier fires in the air near Nigerian governor

February 28, 2014 - 5:35 PM
Nigeria Centenary

Nigeria's President, Goodluck Jonathan, arrives for a summit to address a seminar on security during an event marking the centenary of the unification of Nigeria's north and south in Abuja, Nigeria, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

SHUWA, Nigeria (AP) — A soldier opened fire in anger on Friday at criticism of the military by a state governor in a part of northeast Nigeria where nearly 100 people have been killed by Islamic militants this week.

There was pandemonium, with some people diving into ditches for cover and cars screeching off, as people thought the convoy of Adamawa state Gov. Murtala Nyako was under attack by extremists.

Nyako was visiting Shuwa, where residents say outnumbered soldiers fled and left them at the mercy of Islamic militants who killed at least 33 people in the town and nearby villages Wednesday night. Scores of buildings were firebombed.

Soldiers also inexplicably withdrew from a checkpoint protecting a school hours before it was attacked by extremists who killed 59 students Tuesday in neighboring Yobe state.

Nyako said questions must be answered by the authorities, both military and civilian. He said that contrary to claims by the military, the security situation is deteriorating, and that President Goodluck Jonathan is "toying with people's fate" in his handling of the crisis. Nyako implied there could be collusion between Boko Haram militants and some high-level military commanders or politicians.

"It is unfortunate that innocent souls are being wasted while the central government seems not to be serious, or there could be a hidden agenda against our people," he said.

The latest attacks come as Nigeria's prepares for elections in February 2014, with Jonathan's perceived desire to run again causing major defections from his party amid charges that he would flout an unwritten party rule to rotate the presidency between a Muslim northerner and someone like himself, a Christian from the south.

Anger and criticism have been mounting as attacks by extremists have increased and become deadlier this month. More than 300 people have been killed in February alone. The latest attacks occurred the week African leaders and French President Francois Hollande were in Nigeria for a conference on human security, peace and development.

Some senators are demanding the chief of army staff relocate his headquarters to the war zone in the northeast. Legislators in the House of Assembly suggested the entire military headquarters should move there.

On Friday, as Nyako's convoy was driving out of Shuwa, two military vehicles blocked the road and two soldiers got out shouting, "We are here!" — apparently to imply they had not run away.

When Nyako asked who they were, the soldiers shouted "Boko Haram! We are Boko Haram!" the nickname of the Islamist group terrorizing northeast Nigeria.

Then a soldier in the back fired four bursts of gunfire into the air.

Instead of retreating, Nyako started walking toward the firing soldier, but security agents pulled him back. The state police commissioner and director of the State Security Services was in his convoy.

A military statement said there was "pandemonium," as people thought the governor's convoy was being attacked by the extremists. It did not refer to the soldier firing into the air, but said 13 extremists were killed in attacks on their hideouts Friday and several arrested.

Last month, a military jet bombed the convoy of Sen. Ali Ndume as it traveled to an attack scene. No one was hurt. The military said it was an "operational blunder," though the convoy was led by an army vehicle with a police van in the rear. Ndume has been accused of aiding Boko Haram, and his case is still in court.

Soldiers who spoke to The Associated Press this week complained that even though tens of thousands are deployed they are spread thin on the ground and outnumbered and outgunned by the insurgents.

One asked how they were expected to confront terrorists firing anti-aircraft guns and rocket-propelled grenades when they are armed only with automatic rifles.

The half dozen soldiers, who all requested anonymity for fear of being sacked, said they are exhausted after fighting for months more than the planned six-month deployment, and charged that they are not getting their special allowances. It is not uncommon in Nigeria, where corruption is endemic, for officers to commandeer part of the salaries and allowances of rank and file under their command.

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Faul reported from Lagos, Nigeria.