MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — Thousands of Nigerian hunters, armed with charmed amulets and intimate knowledge of harsh terrain, are preparing an offensive against the Boko Haram extremists who have ravaged the northeast for a decade, calling it “high time” they help soldiers end the deadly insurgency.
Nigeria’s government discouraged a similar offensive five years ago, calling it a suicide mission. This time it has the backing of the governor of Borno state, which has suffered the worst of the Boko Haram attacks.
It is a sign that Nigerian authorities, who have repeatedly claimed the defeat of Boko Haram, might be running out of options against the Islamic extremists and a recent offshoot that has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group.
Borno state’s new Gov. Babagana Zulum, who inherited the conflict after winning election earlier this year, said he is tired of applying conventional strategies against an extremist group that has killed and abducted tens of thousands of people and displaced millions. The unrest has created a vast humanitarian crisis.
The governor recently approved the sourcing of at least 10,000 hunters to help end the fighting.
While Nigeria’s military would not comment, government spokesman Isa Gusau confirmed that the governor has decided to “aggressively explore every lawful means necessary in trying to put an end to the insurgency” after consultations with key stakeholders including elders and traditional rulers.
“We need all the prayers we can get, given the task ahead,” Gusau said.
The hunters are separate from the civilian self-defense forces that have sprung up in northeastern Nigeria to combat the Boko Haram insurgency. Usually inheriting their vocation, the hunters are seen as the only group with intimate knowledge of the forests and other terrain in the vast region near Lake Chad. They see their charms and amulets as protection from attack.
An Associated Press reporter this week visited the camp where about 2,000 hunters have been waiting ahead of their march into the Sambisa forest and other Boko Haram hideouts.
More than 5,000 are being mobilized from Nigeria and regional countries including Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad, said one leader of the hunters, Baba Maigiwa.
“The majority of our men have returned to their various states and communities to go and bid their families farewell” but are on their way back to the Borno capital, Maiduguri, said another leader, Abdulkareem Umar.
“We are here because the governor is passionate about ending this madness called Boko Haram,” he said.
“I remember about five years ago when we, on our own, converged here in Maiduguri with the intention of storming Sambisa forest to confront Boko Haram, but we did not get the backing of the government and the military. As law-abiding citizens, we had to withdraw. But as this is happening now, it means it is time.”
He said the hunters had received 10 vehicles from the state government to help in transport but said they need 30 more, along with weapons.
“We have also made it clear to the authorities that the difference between the soldiers and the hunters is the military training and our knowledge of the jungle,” he said. “But what unites us both is armament. So we need arms and ammunition, just like the soldiers. When that is done, the rest would be history, by the grace of God.”
He said the hunters are being fed by the Borno state government as they wait for the offensive, and food and water have been deployed to various locations that can be used as forward operating bases.
“We are so happy with the move the state governor is making by recognizing the contributions that the hunters can bring into the counterinsurgency war,” said another hunters’ chief, Maigana Maidurma. “We are ready to lay down our lives if that is what it would take to bring peace to our dear land.”
A younger hunter, 32-year-old Auwal Unar, called the upcoming offensive “a war to safeguard our future and the safety of our women and children.”
He said the hunters believe in the potency of the charms they will carry into battle.
“We don’t fear guns but fear only God,” he said. “When we roar in the jungle even the lions fear because our fathers have tapped the secret of the forests, so Boko Haram will have no hiding place. They will have no choice than to surrender, or they die if they dare stand in our way.”