ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — Survivors of a deadly attack in Nigeria's northwest said Sunday the death toll has reached 200, but authorities said that only 58 people were killed in the three days of bloodshed — the latest attack in a cycle of violence in the West African nation.
Locals had earlier reported that at least 100 were killed in the attack by hundreds of gunmen which lasted from Tuesday till Thursday in northwest Zamfara state.
On Sunday, as residents told The Associated Press that bodies from at least eight affected communities have reached 200, authorities and police insisted they have an upper hand in the fight against extremism in Nigeria's troubled northern region.
The Zamfara governor’s office and police said 58 people were killed in the attack in Bukkuyum and Anka local government areas of Zamfara, citing accounts of local chiefs given during a visit to the affected communities on Saturday.
“In Bukkuyum, we lost 36; Anka, 22,” Zamfara Police Commissioner Ayuba Elkanah also told the AP. “These are figures gotten from the emirs on the ground; those they buried."
Elkanah said “there is nothing like people in the bush looking for dead bodies,” but locals countered the claim of the police, a common trend in Nigeria while emergency services officials didn't immediately respond to inquiries. Many people ran away and “up till now, the search is still going on,” resident Shawwal Aliyu said.
Ibrahim Danda, another resident helping in the care of survivors, said those that escaped from the affected villages “are telling us that the corpses are more than 200 and some corpses are not even yet found,” suggesting that the death toll could be higher.
The motorcycle-riding gunmen were said to be escaping military raids when they were confronted by local vigilantes in Zamfara. They overpowered the vigilantes during the violent clash and, in the next 48 hours, “many villages were burnt down to ashes,” Aliyu said from Anka.
The death toll is “in the range of 200 plus (and) that is the minimum many people in the communities have reported (and) as of now, we don’t have a place we consider as internally displaced persons camp because all the schools are being filled up with IDPs," he said.
Many residents are angry and frustrated, especially because such attacks by armed groups aren't rare in northwest Nigeria. In October, gunmen opened fire at a market in neighboring Sokoto and killed more than 40 people.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, who rode to power in 2015 on a wave of goodwill after promising to end the country’s security challenges, said the latest attack is “an act of desperation by mass murderers now under relentless pressure from our military forces."
Buhari insisted the military is “well equipped” to confront the security challenges, against the popular narrative that they are outnumbered and outgunned by the gunmen attacking remote communities in the northwest and central parts of Nigeria.
Buhari's administration has been accused of failing in its strategy to restore peace in violent hot spots. This week, the Nigerian government designated the armed groups as terrorist organizations, turning all eyes to the security forces on how they could take advantage of that move in the use of military force against them.
The assailants often take advantage of the grossly inadequate security presence in many affected communities in the north, in addition to Nigeria’s security forces already being overstretched fighting the decade-long insurgency in the northeast.
Fighter jets recently procured from the U.S. will be deployed against the armed groups, Ibrahim Zauma, a spokesperson for Zamfara governor, told the AP.
The gunmen who attacked Zamfara “are on the run” from military raids, Elkanah said. "So, any village with small resistance, they attack. There will be no success without casualties. Even in advanced war, people must die.”
Chinedu Asadu, The Associated Press