ABUJA: Nigeria’s elections chief Wednesday ruled out any further postponement to upcoming presidential and parliamentary polls, despite Boko Haram vowing to stymie the ballot.
Any additional delay to the vote, which was postponed by six weeks over security concerns related to Boko Haram’s bloody insurgency in the northeast, would be “unconstitutional” electoral commission chairman Attahiru Jega told the Senate.
His remarks came as the Nigerian and Chadian armies claimed to have between them killed over 400 fighters from the jihadist group. But the gains were overshadowed by 36 civilian deaths in an unexplained airstrike in Niger.
The Nigerian military Wednesday said it had killed more than 300 rebels in an operation to retake the garrison town of Monguno in Borno state and 10 other communities.
Civilian vigilantes in Monguno, about 130 kilometres north of the state capital Maiduguri, confirmed the town’s recapture but said only that there were heavy casualties.
In a separate statement Wednesday on Chadian television, the chief of staff of that country’s armed forces said that 117 Islamists had been killed in fierce clashes a day earlier around Dikwa, about 80 kilometres south of Monguno, also in Borno.
Two Chadian soldiers were also killed and nine injured in Tuesday’s fighting, General Brahim Seid Mahamat said, adding that “four vehicles packed with explosives” had been destroyed.
Boko Haram’s bloody six-year campaign to establish a hardline Islamic caliphate in northeast Nigeria, along its borders with Cameroon, Chad and Niger, has killed some 13,000 people since 2009.
The presence of Chadian forces in Dikwa, well inside Nigerian territory, may indicate their readiness to push further into rebel-controlled areas to assist Nigeria’s beleaguered military.
There was no way of independently verifying the two armies’ claims of gains against the insurgents. The two countries have repeatedly made similar assertions as have Niger and Cameroon, which have also taking part in a regional fightback against the group.
Regional forces suffered a set-back Wednesday, however, with officials and humanitarian sources saying at least 36 people were killed and 27 wounded in an air strike by an unidentified plane on Nigeria’s border with Niger.
The bombs fell on mourners attending a funeral near the mosque in Abadam, half of which is in Niger and the other half in Nigeria. Only the Niger side of the village was hit.
Troops from Niger and Chad are currently mobilised along the border but both countries’ militaries denied being responsible.
Nigerian Air Force spokesman Air Commodore Dele Alonge too claimed no knowledge of the bombing, adding: “There has not been any report from our people of such an incident.”
Niger announced an investigation and three days of mourning over the incident, which risks losing the regional coalition support from the local population.
The ongoing operations against Boko Haram were cited by Nigeria’s national security advisor Sambo Dasuki and military top brass as a reason to delay the country’s elections, which had been scheduled for February 14.
Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau vowed in a new video posted Tuesday on Twitter: “This election will not be held even if we are dead.”
Shekau also claimed responsibility for a large-scale attack on the northeastern city of Gombe last Saturday where leaflets were dropped warning people not to vote.
Speaking in the upper chamber of parliament on Wednesday, Jega, who heads the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), was adamant there would be no further change to the timetable.
“I don’t see how anyone can contemplate any extension beyond these six weeks because there is no constitutional grounds on which you can do that,” he said.
Jega announced the postponement of the vote on February 7 after being told that soldiers would not be available to provide security on polling day.