President Goodluck Jonathan made a surprise visit to insurgency-plagued northeast Nigeria on Thursday, a rebuff to critics who say he has ignored the plight of victims of Boko Haram Islamist militants.
“What you’re doing is not easy,” he told officers and soldiers at an army barracks in Maiduguri, capital of Borno state.
“We thank you as a nation. Terrorism is a global phenomenon. We’re working day and night, trying to curtail this madness.”
Jonathan is running for re-election in a Feb. 14 vote in which security is a major issue. His main rival, former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, is seen as tough on security.
It was the president’s first visit to Borno, the area worst affected by the advance of rebels seeking to carve an Islamic state in Nigeria, since he declared a state of emergency in the northeast in May 2013.
Jonathan has been criticised for not doing enough — and often not saying enough — about relentless Boko Haram attacks that have killed thousands of civilians, kidnapped hundreds and pose the greatest security challenge to Nigeria, Africa’s biggest economy.
His administration was seen as slow to react when the insurgents abducted some 200 schoolgirls last April.
The group’s fighters seized the military base and town of Baga, on the shores of Lake Chad, on Jan. 3. Baga was the headquarters of a multinational force with troops from Chad, Niger and Cameroon. The militants have killed scores and razed dozens of homes there, with the military putting the death toll at 150, while some local officials have put it as high as 2,000.
Nigerian security forces repelled an attack by Boko Haram on the northeastern town of Biu on Wednesday, killing several insurgents.
Soldiers have complained of a severe lack of equipment and arms in the face of a determined foe.
“We will assist you to succeed in your efforts. We will give you what is due to you,” Jonathan said. “In terms of equipment, we are better off now than when we started”.