Jehadist terror

Published : Feb 24, 2012 00:00 IST

The police headquarters in Kano after it was hit by a blast on January 20.-WOLE EMMANUEL./AFP

The police headquarters in Kano after it was hit by a blast on January 20.-WOLE EMMANUEL./AFP

The Islamist outfit Boko Haram adds to President Goodluck Jonathan's cup of woes.

THE year has begun badly for the Nigerian government. In early January, people took to the streets in large numbers to protest against the government's sudden decision on January 1 to double the price of petrol. Then came an escalation in the acts of terror in the north of the country by the Boko Haram, a radical Islamist group. The coordinated terror attacks in the city of Kano on January 20, which claimed more than 211 lives, indicate that the organisation poses a clear and present danger to Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation.

The trade unions, under pressure from the grass roots, called a national strike from January 9 after the government removed the subsidy on fuel. Oil industry workers threatened to stop the production and distribution of oil. Until the strike was called off after negotiations with the government on January 12, many cities witnessed violence leading to loss of lives. For the first time since the end of military rule in 1999, the Army was deployed to control mobs.

Life limped back to normal following an agreement between the government and the trade union federation. President Goodluck Jonathan went on national television saying that the government was temporarily reducing the hike in fuel price by one third.

The steep hike in petrol prices had a cascading effect, with the price of basic necessities doubling immediately. Seventy per cent of Nigerians live on less than $2 a day, and 40 per cent of the population under 40 years of age is unemployed. The Nigerian economy is almost totally dependent on the revenues generated by oil sales. The country is one of the world's leading oil producers and has been subsidising the sale of petrol in the domestic market. The government justified the fuel price rise by saying that the $8 billion it would save every year by withdrawing fuel subsidies could be utilised for public works projects.

Significantly, Nigerian refineries have become virtually non-functional, forcing the government to import 85 per cent of its refined fuel. Businessmen having links with influential politicians have made big profits by setting up companies to import refined fuel in a country which produces the best crude oil.

The Nigerian public has very little faith in the government. Much of the government's funds and revenues continue to disappear into the secret bank accounts of politicians and top government officials. Some of the State governments in Nigeria have bigger budgets than that of many African countries, but very little development is seen on the ground. In President Jonathan's home State in the oil-producing Niger Delta region, hospitals do not have even medicines for malaria.

Why should Nigerians trust you and your government to reduce infant and maternal mortality rates and improve the country's infrastructure when you can't handle the simple task of identifying the leeches who've been stealing the fuel subsidy funds? the Nigerian journalist Okey Ndibe wrote in the newspaper Daily Sun. A 2009 WikiLeaks cable reported that official manipulation may have cost Nigeria billions of dollars because international fuel traders overcharged the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) by over $300 million.

The document mentions sweetheart deals between highly placed Nigerian officials and international companies and emphasises that the principal problem in the country is corruption and lack of transparency which will swallow whatever is saved from withdrawing the fuel subsidy.

Boko Haram

Jonathan won the presidential election last year with a huge margin, but he was never a popular figure in the north of the country, where there is a Muslim majority. Now, in the aftermath of the fuel price hike fiasco, his nationwide popularity too seems to be at a low ebb. To make matters worse, he now has to confront the menace of the Boko Haram. Translated from Hausa, Boko Haram roughly means Western knowledge is forbidden. The official name of the group in Arabic is Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidd'awati wal-Jehad, which means People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jehad.

The militant Islamist group signalled its presence in Nigerian politics with a bloody skirmish with the police in 2009 in the northern town of Maiduguri, which is situated near the border with Chad. Hundreds of Boko Haram supporters were killed along with the founder of the movement, Mohammed Yusuf. Its supporters claim that their leader was killed in cold blood on the orders of the federal authorities. The Nigerian government was quick to announce that the movement no longer posed a threat.

But that seems to have been a serious miscalculation. In the last two years, the Boko Haram has carried out a series of attacks against politicians, churches, military barracks, government institutions and even a United Nations compound in the capital, Abuja. Muslim politicians and clerics who have spoken out against its terror tactics have also been targeted.

The communal clashes between Christians and Muslims in central Nigeria in recent years have helped the Boko Haram attract new recruits. The biggest coordinated attack by the group was the latest one in Kano, a city of more than 10 million people. The Boko Haram's aim is to create a purely Islamic state. Such a state would theoretically comprise only the Muslim-majority north. Sharia law is already prevalent there.

The Boko Haram is against Muslims participating in elections, receiving Western education or even wearing shirts and trousers. Its followers swear by the Quranic phrase which says, Anyone who is not governed by what Allah has revealed is among the transgressors. A BBC survey in 2004 revealed that Nigeria was the most religious country in the world, with 90 per cent of those polled saying that they were willing to sacrifice their lives for religion. In the south and east of the country, messianic Christian cults have found huge followings.

Emerging threat

The activities of the Boko Haram have also come under international scrutiny. United States officials have been saying for some time that the Boko Haram has become an affiliate of Al Qaeda in the Sahel region. A U.S. Congressional Report released in November 2011 warned that the group was an emerging threat to the U.S. and its interests in the region.

The group started resorting to suicide bombing last year. A suicide bomber rammed his car into the U.N. building in Abuja in August, killing 24 people. Security cameras showed the driver calmly detonating his suicide vest. It was the first Boko Haram attack on a foreign target. A statement by the group at that time claimed that 100 of its members were preparing for more suicide missions. More attacks are on the way, and by the will of Allah we will have unfettered access to wherever we want to attack, the statement said.

In Kano, vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIED) were used to target police facilities. The Boko Haram's initial forays into terrorism were amateur affairs compared with this. The weapons that were used were mainly machetes, clubs and small arms.

The radical Islamist group killed more than 500 people in 2011 and more than 250 in the first month of this year. There is fear in the West that the Boko Haram could start posing a serious challenge, like Al Shabab in Somalia and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Nigeria's fragile unity can be put to the test if the Boko Haram's activities are not checked. The fault lines between the north and the south have been widening in recent years. Sections of the political elite in the north are unhappy with what they consider as the breaking of a sacrosanct rule in Nigerian politics by President Jonathan.

Widening fault lines

Politicians in the north and the south generally enjoyed power by rotation. After the end of the military rule in 1999, Olusegun Obasanjo of the south ruled for two terms. His successor, Umaru Yar'adua, from the north died without completing his first term in office. Jonathan, who was then the Vice-President, succeeded him. Politicians from the north expected Jonathan, a southerner, to stand aside and make way for another politician from the north to step into the presidency. This did not happen as the ruling People's Democratic Party nominated Jonathan for the post. Now there are allegations that the Boko Haram has the secret support of some disgruntled politicians from the north though the government has not provided any proof.

The government may have to adopt a more flexible policy towards the Boko Haram. Observers cite the example of how it dealt with the rebels in the Niger Delta who had created havoc in the petroleum sector by staging hit-and-run raids. The government bought peace with generous financial packages and a bigger share of the oil revenues for the Delta State. The north, which is more arid and has no oil resources, also demands a bigger share of the oil revenues. Economic indicators show that the people in the south are better off than their northern compatriots.

Prominent Nigerians, like the Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, have started drawing parallels between the situation now and that in 1967, when Nigeria had been ravaged by a four-year-long civil war. More than a million people perished in that conflict, which was sparked by the killing of prominent politicians and ethnic pogroms.

While visiting Kano, Jonathan stated that the situation at hand was more complicated than the civil war we fought. He also alleged that members of the Boko Haram had infiltrated the government.

In response to the alarming spurt in Boko Haram attacks, he has announced the launch of an Operation Restore Order. The government has signalled the start of its own war on terror, with Army and police units launching attacks on neighbourhoods allegedly harbouring Boko Haram members and sympathisers. According to reports, many innocent people have been killed in operations in cities such as Kano and Maiduguri.

At the same time, the President has said that he is prepared to open a dialogue with the group, provided the Boko Haram leadership identifies itself. We will dialogue. Let us know your problems and we will solve your problems. But if they don't identify themselves, who will you dialogue with? Jonathan said.

Abubakar Shekau, who speaks on behalf of the Boko Haram, posted an audio message which said that the attacks in Kano were in retaliation for the torture of its members by the security forces. He threatened to carry out attacks against universities and schools in the country unless security forces stopped attacks on madrassas in Maiduguri.

It looks like the bloody cycle of violence will continue for some more time even as the government tries to crush the shadowy group that has risen to challenge Nigerian national unity.

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