Terror in the north

Print edition : May 16, 2014

The scene at the bus station in an Abuja suburb after the Boko Haram terror attack of April 14. Photo: AFP

Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan. Photo: THIERRY CHARLIER/AFP

At least 75 people were killed in the April 14 bomb attack. Photo: AFP

A screengrab shows a man claiming to be Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the Boko Haram. Photo: AFP

The Boko Haram spreads terror in the northern swathes of Nigeria, primarily to exacerbate the divide between the predominantly Muslim north and the mainly Christian south.

THIS year has witnessed a dramatic spurt in terrorist-related violence in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country. The radical Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamist group Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for a series of massacres and bombings that have rocked the city of Maiduguri and other towns in northern Nigeria since the beginning of the year. The group once again attacked the capital, Abuja, on April 14. The terror attack at a busy bus station in a working-class suburb of the capital killed at least 75 people. The last series of terror attacks in the capital took place in 2012. These included the first suicide bomb attack by a Boko Haram operative on the United Nations building in the capital. Soon after the April 14 attack, 129 schoolgirls, aged between 15 and 18, were kidnapped from their hostel in the north-eastern State of Borno, where the Boko Haram has strong support.

In March, in attacks on two towns, the militants killed more than 70 people. In February, the group attacked a boys’ school in Maiduguri, killing more than 20 pupils. The day after the raid on the girls’ dormitory, the Nigerian Army claimed that all the girls had been rescued and returned to their families. However, the army was forced to retract the statement quickly as the local media reported that only around 20 girls had returned safely to their homes. In previous attacks on schools and colleges, the group had only engaged in killings. The Boko Haram is against the inculcation of Western-style education in Nigerian schools. The name Boko Haram roughly translated from the Hausa language means “all Western knowledge is forbidden”. Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for more than 1,500 deaths since the beginning of the year alone.

Nigeria, which boasts of having one of Africa’s most potent military forces, has failed miserably in dealing effectively with the Islamist insurgency that has spread terror in broad swathes in the north. With the attack in Abuja, the group has signalled that it has the wherewithal to target other key cities as well in the rest of the country. The latest developments have brought the spotlight back on President Goodluck Jonathan. In a speech in February, he had assured his countrymen that terrorism was on the verge of being eliminated. He said the Boko Haram was only active in the remote areas in the north-eastern region. But the recent burst of terror attacks has shown that Jonathan’s optimism was grossly misplaced. The government continues to assert that the army is fully capable of dealing with the insurgency. The latest incidents have, however, made many Nigerians question the efficacy of the army. The leadership of the armed forces came in for particular ridicule after its initial claim that it had rescued all the kidnapped schoolgirls.

In some parts of the north-eastern region, where the army has been deployed in strength for carrying out counter-insurgency operations, there have been serious charges of human rights abuses against soldiers. Three States in the region have been placed under emergency rule since last year in a bid to check the Boko Haram menace. The area is vast and the terrain, bordering Cameroon, is forested and difficult to patrol.

On March 14, Boko Haram militants attacked a detention centre in the well-protected military barracks in Maiduguri in an effort to free their supporters. In the heavy fighting that followed, more than 500 civilians were killed. The residents of the town told the local media that the army had killed many of the detained men and also those who had tried to escape its custody. The army has denied these accusations.

Another serious accusation is that sections of the army are colluding with the Boko Haram. The army is thought to have a vested interest in prolonging the conflict as the federal government has earmarked more than $6 billion for security-related activities. The government had initially tried to coax the Boko Haram to join the negotiations to end the violence. According to reports, a tentative peace deal with the group was reached in June last year, but it fell apart after the government backtracked and did away with the Boko Haram contacts it was negotiating with. The representatives of the group told the media at the time that a peaceful resolution was possible if the government gave it an assurance that the destroyed villages would be rebuilt and that employment and vocational training would be given to close relatives of those killed in the military operations.

Spate of attacks

The Boko Haram came into prominence after it carried out a spate of attacks against police stations and government offices in Maiduguri in 2009. In response, the state authorities killed hundreds of Boko Haram supporters. Thousands of Boko Haram fighters were forced to flee the city. The founder of the group, a cleric called Mohammed Yusuf, was killed in a military attack on the group’s headquarters. He was first shown captured alive and after a few hours, his corpse was displayed on national television. A year later, the Boko Haram regrouped under a new leader, Abubakar Shekau, and attacked a prison in Bauchi State. The attack resulted in the freeing of hundreds of jailed Boko Haram supporters. Since then Boko Haram fighters have terrorised civilians in many northern towns by resorting to indiscriminate killing. Motorcycle-borne gunmen have targeted officials and clergymen. Churches have been targeted frequently. Even mosques are not spared if the clerics do not adhere to the fundamentalist religious views of the Boko Haram. In fact, more Muslims than Christians have died at the hands of the group.

The Boko Haram’s longevity proves that it has support in many parts of the north. Many people are still nostalgic for the Sharia law, which had been in force in the region before it was colonised by the British and the French. Many northerners feel that the Sharia is the antidote for the rampant corruption that exists in the country. One of the important goals of the group is to further exacerbate the religious divide between the predominantly Muslim north and the mainly Christian south. In the past couple of years, there have been many serious incidents of communal bloodletting. Repeated inter-religious riots in cities such as Jos and Kaduna had led to hundreds of deaths. There are also frequent clashes involving ethnic groups. In the first week of April, Fulani nomadic herders clashed with their religious compatriots, the Hausas, over land rights in Zamfara State. The clashes resulted in the death of more than 70 people.

According to Human Rights Watch, inter-ethnic and inter-religious strife in central Nigeria have claimed the lives of more than 3,000 people since 2010. The civil war, which took place between 1966 and 1970, had resulted in the death of more than a million people. Some of the scars left by that war are still etched in the Nigerian psyche. The southern and eastern parts of the country are more developed than the north. The oil industry and the commercial capital, Lagos, are located in the east.

The Boko Haram upsurge may create more problems for Goodluck Jonathan as he seeks another term in office. To begin with, he was an accidental President, having been elevated to the high office following the premature death of the previous occupant, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. There is an unwritten rule in Nigerian politics that the presidency has to rotate between the north and the south. Yar’Adua, who was from the north, passed away before he could complete his first term. Leading northern politicians are of the view that it was in the fitness of things that Jonathan should vacate the presidency for a politician from the north. Olusegun Obasanjo, a southerner and a Christian, had served the previous two four-year terms as the country’s President. But Jonathan stuck to his guns and ran successfully for the presidency three years ago with the support of some key northern politicians.

Now he is seeking a second consecutive term in office to the chagrin of power-brokers in the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Among those opposing his bid is the venerable Obasanjo. Recognised as an elder statesman on the African continent, Obasanjo has publicly accused Jonathan of reneging on his commitment not to run for a second term. Obasanjo said Jonathan had failed to deliver on his electoral promises, provide good governance or promote national unity. He quoted from a letter written by Lamido Sanusi, the Governor of Nigeria’s Central Bank, saying that $50 billion of the country’s oil revenue are “unaccounted for” by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC).

Governors from five important States, along with former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar, have defected to the opposition All Progressive Congress (APC). Thirty-seven members of the Lower House of Parliament have also switched to the recently formed APC. The PDP has run Nigeria since it returned to civilian rule in 1999.

The Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka has added his voice to the growing criticism of the government. Speaking at a conference held after the Abuja terror attacks, Soyinka said Nigeria was in dire need of competent leaders. “Nigeria is at war and only competence can solve the problem,” he observed. The Governor of Adamawa State, Murtala Nyako, went to the extent of claiming that the federal government was sponsoring the Boko Haram insurgency in order “to disenfranchise” the voters in the north.

The United States security agencies are watching the emerging situation in Nigeria. The Barack Obama administration has already declared the Boko Haram as a “terrorist” group and put a $7-million bounty on the head of its leader, Shekau. The U.S. security agencies are said to be cooperating with their Nigerian counterparts in framing counter-insurgency tactics. The Nigerian government has so far refused any open outside military help despite calls to do so from a few prominent Nigerians. The U.S. is no doubt eager to pitch in, apparently to get a military foothold in West Africa. The Nigerian government had previously refused to provide basing facilities for the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM). Nigerian politicians and strategic thinkers are no doubt aware of the backlash American involvement has caused in the Horn of Africa region. American drone and missile attacks on Al Shabab militants in Somalia have not helped curb the insurgency there. Instead, there have been serious ramifications for America’s allies, such as Kenya and Uganda, in the region.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor