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Boko Haram May Control Up To 20 Percent Of Nigeria


Nigeria's finance minister is among the world leaders who have tweeted the words je suis Charlie in support of France. What's not in her Twitter feed, though, is a single word about the recent string of attacks in her own country at the hands of the militant group Boko Haram. The country's president, Goodluck Jonathan, has been silent too. Last week, reports emerged of raids on the town of Baga that killed hundreds, possibly up to 2,000 people. The New Yorker's Alexis Okeowo has been trying to get more details about the attacks. She's in Lagos, Nigeria, but says getting information is incredibly difficult.

ALEXIS OKEOWO, BYLINE: The problem right now with ascertaining how many people were killed is because reporters can't get up there. It would be a death wish. And so when attacks happen in these places, news only comes out through survivors, through people who escape and make it to other towns and talk about it. But phone lines are down, for example, in now Baga and other places under Boko Haram control. And so because of that, it's very difficult as a reporter to write about what is going on because you're relying on witness accounts, but you're not able to go there and see and observe what's happening. So we're just relying on what people have seen and cobbling it all together.

CORNISH: And this is not the first time the group has attacked this town. I mean, what's the value of this city as a target?

OKEOWO: Well, in this town there is a multinational military base. And Boko Haram managed to run out the soldiers who were stationed there and now have control of that base. One way that Boko Haram has gotten a lot of its weapons is by raiding Nigerian Air Force and military bases. So this is aligned with what they have done in the past. And, you know, it's a very symbolic measure that they've occupied now another town and are continuing to gain territory.

CORNISH: Nigeria is a very large country - right? - larger than any in Europe, a little more than twice the size of California here in the U.S. How much of it is under control of Boko Haram?

OKEOWO: Right now, we're hearing, on the lowest end, somewhere around 20,000 square miles, which is about the size of Belgium - up to about 20 percent of the country, which is around 70,000. It's a territory that was never really well-governed by the national government anyway, and Boko Haram has taken advantage of that.

CORNISH: We know they've attacked these areas. Are they actually now trying to govern them?

OKEOWO: Well, that's the thing. They're kind of doing a kind of thug governance where, you know, they extort people, they enact a kind of justice system where they punish people with very harsh punishments for violating whatever rules they create. So it's not any kind of real governance, but it's kind of crude control they have over people, forcing them to, you know, abandon whatever normal lives they had and now be under this oppressive new regime.

CORNISH: So it sounds like what you're saying is they're not exactly moving towards creating a state.

OKEOWO: Well, the goal that they had in the beginning when this was a very localized uprising was to create an Islamic state. But now people don't know what they want. Any people who supported Boko Haram in the beginning did so because they thought they were fighting for Allah, and they had a sort of noble, religious mission. But a lot of those people now say, you know, Boko Haram is attacking Muslims. You know, we don't see any kind of religious leanings in what they're doing.

CORNISH: You've written that the relationship between the U.S. and Nigerian government has been comprised in recent months - in what way?

OKEOWO: Well, the problem is that the Nigerian military is corrupt. It's both guilty of human rights abuses against civilians and of also not providing its soldiers with enough equipment to properly fight Boko Haram. And so the U.S. does not feel comfortable giving Nigeria intelligence and more help in this war. And so, as a result, the relationship between the two countries has broken down.

CORNISH: Alexis Okeowo, she's a correspondent for the New Yorker magazine. She spoke to us from Lagos, Nigeria. Thank you so much for talking with us.

OKEOWO: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.