Lagos, Nigeria - Ali Yusuf has slept rough for days now. He had stayed in the military barracks in Baga, a northeastern Nigerian town near the retreating shores of Lake Chad, when gunfire woke him in the early hours of January 3.

"All I could hear was gunshots," he said over the telephone. "Those Boko Haram people came plenty."

In what is seen as the deadliest attack carried out by Boko Haram to date, the fighters reportedly killed as many as 2,000 people and razed hundreds of houses in Baga, a fishing town on the border with Chad that hosts a key military base, and in nearby settlements.  

Yusuf did not wait to see how long the beleaguered army could resist the fighters, who have been tightening their grip on the region as they seek to establish an Islamic state. He, like many others, lost faith in the military long ago.

We saw the soldiers running and saying: 'Boko Haram are bigger than us'... At that moment everyone fled.

Mariam Issa, survivor of Boko Haram attack

Running blindly into the bush, Yusuf was hunted down by Boko Haram fighters armed "with machine guns, with tanks, with motorcycles".

He told Al Jazeera he survived only "by God's grace". A day later, hungry and exhausted, he was rescued and brought to Maiduguri, capital of Borno state, where he now sleeps by the roadside. He may not be safe for long.

Boko Haram mounted an attack on Maiduguri last week, and the armed forces are still trying to defend the town.

Others, who were more trusting in their defenders, lived to regret it. Mariama Issa said she chose not to run because she believed Nigerian soldiers would defend the town.

"Later we saw the soldiers running and saying: 'Boko Haram are bigger than us,'" she said by phone from Niger. "At that moment everyone fled."

She was caught and held hostage for nine days before she managed to escape.

Low army morale 

These stories are among dozens to emerge in the aftermath of the massacre. Each paints a picture of devastation and panic. Each is united by a sense of desertion by the Nigerian authorities.

Nigeria's northeast is among the poorest parts of the country. Citizens here have long felt sidelined by governments more concerned with oil and commercial wealth in the country's south.

Boko Haram has fed off that frustration.

"Limited education and employment opportunities have contributed to creating large marginalised groups that have been more susceptible to radical Islamist rhetoric," said Thomas Hansen, senior West Africa analyst for Control Risks, a security consulting company.

As the insurgency has strengthened, so has the sense of abandonment among locals left to face the fallout.

Nigeria's army is the source of great criticism. Thanks to high levels of corruption within its higher echelons, soldiers are under-resourced and desperately demoralised. Fearful of their demonic and better-equipped enemy, they regularly flee battles and retreat over borders.

Late last year, Al Jazeera saw a dozen such men recovering from bullet wounds in a hospital in Diffa, a dusty, destitute town in southeast Niger. They refused to answer questions, saying only that they had fled because they were attacked.

The top presidential security adviser, Sambo Dasuki, recently brushed off allegations that forces were ill-equipped, blaming instead "cowards" in its ranks.

In an effort to crack down on ill-discipline, at least 66 members of the army have been sentenced to death for mutiny and refusing to fight Boko Haram since September.

Army on the defensive

However, both soldiers and witnesses speak differently of their resources. "Boko Haram [fighters] are more armed than Nigerian soldiers," Issa, the Baga refugee said. "One Boko Haram soldier can have three kinds of weapons."

A colonel - who was not authorised to talk to the press - said supplies of functioning equipment have plummeted since his deployment to conflicts in Sierra Leone and Liberia in the 1990s.

"The [Nigerian army] weapons are either obsolete or are not able to counter the firepower Boko Haram is having," a former army captain, who requested anonymity for security purposes, told Al Jazeera. "The problem is a fact of power. Boko Haram is using armoured personnel carriers, Boko Haram has acquired anti-aircraft weapons. You can't just fight them, it's not possible."

Communities in the northeast are mostly resigned to those shortcomings. Boko Haram had been coming to Baga for weeks before it laid its bloody siege earlier this month, Yusuf said. "Last month, they came in the night and we would hear their gunshots. The army would just stay in the barracks and return fire. They would not go into the bush to find those men."

By the beginning of the year, fighters had amassed the strength to overrun the town, killing hundreds if not thousands of people.

The government has shown little commitment to tackling the crisis. "There is a real lack of political will, a great deal of inertia," said Nnamdi Obasi, a Nigeria analyst at the International Crisis Group, an NGO that works to end deadly conflicts.

When President Goodluck Jonathan visited Baga victims last week, it was his first trip to the country's northeast in almost two years. Most locals were cynical.

Some said with elections scheduled for February 14, Jonathan's government is more concerned with regaining power than ending the war.

'Empty promises'

"We are absolutely deserted," said Jerry Bukar, an activist in Maiduguri. "The government did not make any effort to tackle the [Baga] situation. They go from one camp to the other campaigning with empty promises. The Nigerian government is in a total mess."

Mike Omeri, the government's spokesman on the insurgency, told Al Jazeera that "a lot of preparations to retake the place" have been made, "but there has been no counterattack".

One official close to the presidency, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorised to talk to the media, admitted the government is facing a major challenge.

"It's a stress test on the administration and we are trying to figure out ways to respond," he said. "This type of security that is required is different from what the army was constituted to do previously. We need special forces and we need to engage in a different way. It's a tough challenge for an institution not configured to deal with this."

All the while, the human costs are mounting. More than 18,600 people have been killed in fighting involving state actors and Boko Haram, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. Almost a million more have been displaced within Nigeria.

Many have lost loved ones. "I am feeling so bitter," said Zuwaira Mohammed, a woman in her 60s who was held hostage in Baga before escaping to Maiduguri. She lost her husband in the chaos of the attack. "I have not seen him to this day. I do not know where he is."

With camps overrun, she has nowhere to go and sleeps outdoors with a group of victims, including Yusuf. They have little food and money, and no blankets to protect them against the cold wind that blows down from the Sahara this time of year.

Regional implications

Outside the country, there are many more Boko Haram victims - 153,000 refugees have fled into Cameroon, Chad, and Niger since May 2013, according to UNHCR. Last week alone, 4,000 entered Niger, said Matias Meier, country director of the International Rescue Committee.

Donors and the government are trying their best, "but the support is not keeping up pace with the continuous influxes. We need more resources," he said.

Some locals are fearful that fighters will enter the ranks of refugees, exacerbating the conflict's overspill. Cameroon has already been dragged into the fighting, with Boko Haram staging a number of attacks and abductions on its soil.

As the situation escalates, pressure is mounting on Nigeria and its neighbours to find a solution. Regional leaders met in Niger recently to discuss the deployment of a multinational force, but the move has stalled as countries bicker over details - including the right of cross-border pursuit.

Chad, losing patience, announced separately that it is sending soldiers to support Cameroonian troops on the Nigerian border. 

An African Union force has also been suggested, but Nigeria has already expressed dissatisfaction with that option. "The Nigerians wouldn't accept foreign troops like that on their soil," one Western diplomat, based in Abuja, said on condition of anonymity because he wasn't granted permission to go on record.

As Nigeria dallies, Boko Haram gains strength. In his latest YouTube video, the group's purported leader Abubakar Shekau taunted the "kings of Africa" for their failure to fight back. "You are late. I challenge you to attack me even now. I'm ready," he said.

In the wake of the Baga atrocity, international eyes are back on Boko Haram as they were following the Chibok kidnappings of hundreds of schoolgirls in April 2014. Global interest waned after that event, but Nigerians here say they hope this time is different. 

Follow Eleanor Whitehead on Twitter: @NellWhitehead

Source: Al Jazeera