Hundreds of Nigerian soldiers have been killed in recent months by Islamist militants who the president vowed to defeat when voted into power in 2015 – and the bloodshed has become a useful weapon for opponents aiming to topple him in coming elections.
Muhammadu Buhari’s administration has been largely silent about the fighting in the northeast as, in battle after battle, soldiers have died.
On Thursday, Buhari’s political opponents disclosed that 44 soldiers had been killed in an attack in the village of Metele, in the north eastern state of Borno, on Sunday.
The move is calculated to undermine the security credentials of the president as he seeks a second term in three months’ time, say politics and security analysts.
Buhari is a former military general and commander-in-chief who came to power promising to defeat the insurgents and whose administration has claimed for years to have beaten Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa (ISWA).
The candidate for the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) is Atiku Abubakar, a businessman and former vice president seeking to topple Buhari.
The Senate president, Bukola Saraki, is also PDP and tightly controls the upper house of parliament, which suspended its session on Thursday to honour the fallen after announcing the deaths.
The PDP “are playing politics with conflict,” said Idayat Hassan, director of the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy and Development.
“They know elections can be won or lost based on the issue of security,” she said. “Many people will be very angry. The government has made no statement, they have not confirmed it, so it will be taken as another attempt to deny that the Boko Haram insurgency has not been completely defeated.”
A PDP spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A Nigerian presidency spokesman said the military would issue a statement. In a statement posted late on Friday on its Facebook page, the army confirmed that troops were attacked in Metele on Sunday.
“Several social media, print and online publications have been brandishing false casualty figures,” it said in the statement, without disclosing the number of those killed or injured.