MAIDUGURI/YOLA // Nigerian troops moved into cities in the northeast yesterday, after the president, Goodluck Jonathan, declared a state of emergency in response to an Islamist insurgency that has seized control of parts of the region.
Residents saw army trucks carrying soldiers enter Yola and Maiduguri after Mr Jonathan on Tuesday declared the emergency in three states - Borno, Adamawa and Yobe - following attacks by militants of the Boko Haram group.
The Boko Haram insurgency has cost thousands of lives and destabilised Africa's top energy-producing nation since it began in 2009. The Islamists have targeted the security forces, Christian worshippers and politicians in Nigeria's mainly Muslim north.
The troop deployment is likely to placate some of Mr Jonathan's critics, who had accused him of not facing up to the gravity of the crisis, although some northern politicians have already voiced concerns over raising tensions in the area.
It is also unclear whether greater military might can win a battle against an adversary that has proved a master at melting away under pressure, only to re-emerge again elsewhere.
Military officials in the northeast and at headquarters in the capital Abuja were not immediately available for comment.
In the Borno state capital of Maiduguri, the biggest city in the area and birthplace of the insurgency, residents also reported an influx of troops. The mood in the city was tense, shops were mostly shut and there were few people on the streets. Schools were closed.
"What I saw this morning scared me," said Ahmed Mari of the scene in Maiduguri. "I have never seen soldiers on the move quite like this before."
Another, Kabir Laoye, voiced a widely held fear that civilians could be caught up in the conflict: "There is a lot of apprehension about the state of emergency," he said.
Mr Jonathan's orders came after growing evidence that a better-equipped, better-armed Boko Haram now controls territory around Lake Chad, where local officials have fled.
"What we are facing is ... a rebellion and insurgency by terrorist groups which pose a very serious threat to ... territorial integrity," Mr Jonathan said. "Already, some northern parts of Borno state have been taken over by groups whose allegiance is to different flags and ideologies."
Officials say militants control at least 10 local government districts of Borno state - a semi-desert region was once the centre of one of West Africa's oldest medieval Islamic empires - and are using porous borders with Cameroon, Chad and Niger to smuggle in arms and mount increasingly bold attacks.
A crackdown on Boko Haram in 2009 led to the deaths of 800 people, including its founder, Mohammed Yusuf, who died in police custody. Instead of crushing them, it unleashed a wave of popular rage that made the Islamists only more deadly.
On April 16 this year, scores were killed in the fishing village of Baga, on Lake Chad, when troops from Nigeria, Niger and Chad raided it looking for Islamists who had killed a soldier. Residents said soldiers were responsible for many civilian deaths, triggering widespread anger towards the army.