The massive security presence on the streets of Nigeria’s capital city, Abuja, and several cities across the country’s northern states is a vivid narrative of the security challenges that the country faces.
This is the face that the Nigerian government wants the world to see as proof of its readiness to fight the fundamentalist Islamic sect, Boko Haram, which has sporadically been waging a clandestine war of terror against the government and its security agencies since 2009.
The country’s leadership has assumed a hawkish approach in its war against this amorphous terror network. Security cameras have been installed at every key intersection around the city in a desperate attempt by the government to seize the initiative, while a heavy military presence in the north of the country, where the group has executed its terror with fatal consequences, has exposed the government’s methods as ruthless. This is Nigeria’s first face off with a coordinated Islamic fundamentalist terror organization, but its second recent terror threat after the Independence Day bombings allegedly executed by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) in October 2010.
Boko Haram claims that its campaign is in retaliation to the military operations in 2009 – intended to quell protests against a government decision in the northern Borno state to evict members of the group from a settlement they had built within the state’s capital and their stronghold, Maiduguri. This decision was based on reports that the group was building a large anti-government support base within the state. The protests that resulted from the evacuation attempts quickly spiraled out of control when heavy handed military tactics to quell them led to the loss of over seven hundred lives, including that of the group’s leader, Mohammed Yusuf. His death in the hands of security agents raised many questions and signaled the start of an all out war declared by the group’s members who vowed revenge.
There are also signs that the Boko Haram threat is unveiling undertones of a geopolitical divide. Opinions in the southern, largely Christian, states, whose citizens have been easy targets for rioters in the north, have been swayed by allegations that the attacks are direct attempts by the northern political leadership to make the country ungovernable for Nigeria’s first southern minority president, Goodluck Jonathan. Giving credence to this belief is the opinion that the shift in the country’s political power base has provoked northern anger and a desire to frustrate the government’s efforts at implementing its policies.
The allegations of a northern political conspiracy are a bit farfetched but also not completely implausible. However, unlike the insurrections in the Niger Delta in the late 90s and early 2000s, Boko Haram is not driven by any ambitions of ethnic or political relevance within the Nigerian context. It has hinged its war on the demand for the implementation of Sharia law specifically across the Muslim north, and revenge for the deaths of its leader and other members. It has so far focused its campaign largely on assassinating members of the northern elite whom it considers corrupt and impervious to the people’s needs.
Finding a solution to this phenomenon appears to be a frustrating task for the Nigerian government. This task has been made even more difficult by the fact that very little is known about the group’s sponsors. They have however gradually built a large following and a coordinated network of cells without being detected by Nigeria’s State Security Service (SSS). Information has, however, started filtering down: there is some evidence that the group receives motivation, material, and ideological support or influence from a global jihadist movement, but its origins are traceable more to a homegrown phenomenon than any external support.
Boko Haram, which means ‘western education is forbidden’, is a pseudonym used to describe the group known as Jama’atul Ahul Sunnah Lidda’wati wal Jihad, which is Arabic for; ‘people committed to the propagation of the prophet’s teachings and jihad.’ In 2002 it sprouted from the growing influence religious groups enjoyed with the reintroduction of Sharia at state level within the region. For its leader, Yusuf, it was an opportunity to build a strong support base that would aid his radical ideas. The alias captures the resistance of the group to western influences, but oversimplifies their demands. While the declaration of a ban on western education is true, their list of demands include the introduction of strict Islamic laws across the Muslim north, but does not include the southern part of the country, as they do not consider themselves a part of Nigeria’s current geopolitical framework.
Religious fanaticism has always existed in Nigeria in one form or another and has occasionally provoked conflicts across the country’s volatile religious divide – Boko Haram’s activities share obvious similarities with some other fanatical Islamic sects that have emerged at different times on the country’s unsettled religious scene. Some of the most prominent of these groups, such as Maitatsine, Izalla, Quaddiriya, Tijjaniya, Derika, and the Kablu, have exploited the stagnant economic situation in the north, building their support amongst the teeming population of unemployed youth, known locally as Al Majirin, reliant on religious teachings that promise a better life under the implementation of strict religious laws.
Like Boko Haram, the most notorious of these groups, Maitatsine, entered public consciousness in 1982 following protracted riots on the streets of another northern Nigerian city, Kano, before spreading to Yola, Maiduguri, Bauchi and Gombe. Estimates suggest that at least 4,000 people lost their lives, but suicide attacks or covert operations against institutions of government or offices of international organisations were not employed.
In the three years of its daring assault on Nigeria’s security agencies, Boko Haram continues to undermine the efforts of the agencies to wipe it out. They have carried out attacks on the police and army with horrifying accuracy and have assassinated several key politicians in the north. Victims of this new offensive include a gubernatorial candidate, widely expected to win the elections held earlier this year in Borno state, and an aide to another northern state governor. The violence in the northern states, particularly in Borno, have provoked mass migrations of Christian residents – mostly from the south – and members of Nigeria’s National Youth Service Corps, deployed to the northern states for their mandatory one year of national service, have also been targeted.
Estimates put the number of lives lost since the group began its offensive against government at over four hundred. The threat of attacks in Abuja, where they carried out the suicide bombing on the national headquarters of the police and the United Nations’ Nigeria office, has stifled a once lively nightlife scene. The seriousness of the Boko Haram threat also persuaded the president to cancel events organised to celebrate the country’s Fifty First independence anniversary.
The similarities between Boko Haram and other Islamic fundamentalist groups are most evident in doctrines and the social conditions that exist within the environment from which they recruit their followers. Boko Haram appears to have imbibed the tactics of international terror organisations with frightening success, and the failure of Nigeria’s security agencies to stop them suggests that their campaign may continue for some time to come. It is not only the incapacity of the security agencies that frightens most Nigerians, but the apprehension that this phenomenon may lead to the proliferation of similar groups. All indications suggest that the sentiments these groups ride on will remain as long as government strategy to stop the attacks is considered by the northern public to be both oppressive and selective.
Ejiro Barrett is a freelance journalist and reporter. He writes a weekly column for The Nigerian Observer.