Bombing in Abuja: On Nigeria's Boko Haram
Comfort Ero, On the African Peacebuilding Agenda |
6 Sep 2011
The declaration by Boko Haram that it carried out the bomb attacks against the United Nations headquarters in the heavily fortified diplomatic zone of Nigeria’s federal capital, Abuja, has propelled the group into the international arena. The attack on a principal international organisation marks a major departure from the group’s previous targets which have tended to be local, such as police units, churches, banks and bars, as well as assassinations against Muslim clerics who criticised their violent acts.
This new direction and the escalation of attacks suggest that the group is growing dangerously confident and willing to extend its reach, perhaps even wanting to portray itself on par with more established groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) which also attacked UN offices in Algeria in 2007.
Who is Boko Haram, and what does it want?
Boko Haram, which means “Western Education is Sin”, has its origins in its radical young preacher Mohammed Yusuf who, exploiting the politicisation of religion by northern Nigeria’s political elite, found support among unemployed, impoverished and disenfranchised youth for his more fundamentalist strain of Islam. It began in 2002 in Maiduguri, capital of the north-eastern state of Borno, which borders Cameroon, Niger and Chad and is one of the poorest regions in Nigeria.
The group’s insistence on strict adherence to a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam across northern Nigeria began to attract national and international attention, particularly for its extreme violence. Mohammed Yusuf was killed in police custody in 2009 in the aftermath of one of Boko Haram’s deadly confrontations with Nigerian security forces, and the sect has vowed revenge for the killing of their leader.
Boko Haram emerges from a tradition of intense and often violent religious fervour among northern Nigeria’s Muslim sects. It is strikingly similar to the Maitatsine group founded by a northern Cameroon preacher known as Marwa in the 1970s. Maitatsine undertook violent campaigns to enforce strict Islamic codes in northern Nigeria, and the deadliness of its operation is comparable to Boko Haram’s. Its bloodiest confrontation was with Nigerian security forces in December 1980; its leader also died in violent riots.
Boko Haram is thus not an entirely new phenomenon. What marks the group out is its demonstrated resilience and tenacity to mount continued operations that hit at the heart of Nigeria’s national security apparatus.
The group gradually spread its deadly campaigns to several key northern Nigerian states, including Kaduna, Bauchi, Katsina, and Jos and lately to Abuja, the federal capital. The group claimed responsibility for a spate of bomb blasts that occurred in and around Abuja shortly after the inauguration of President Goodluck Jonathan on 29 May 2011. On 16 June, a twin bombing rocked the Nigeria Police headquarters in Abuja -- also the group’s handiwork.
There are indications that Boko Haram may have exploited political disaffection in the north with the final results of the presidential elections. The mass of uneducated and unemployed in the north that were responsible for April’s post-election violence, which ravaged some fourteen northern states and claimed about 1,000 lives, are mostly recruits or potential recruits of the group.
While there is little to formally link the group with northern political parties as many suggest, it is believed that the group enjoyed support from key northern elites in its formative years. In fact, the decision of certain northern state governors and legislatures to impose Sharia in their states validated the intense radicalisation of Islam in their societies.
International terror links
As with many other international terrorist organisations, Boko Haram needs to be understood in both its Nigerian and international context.
Fears that it may have links, whether direct or indirect, with the AQIM operating across the Sahara Desert in Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco, Mali and Niger, have brought the group within the ambit of Washington’s intelligence interest. The Nigerian government has been working closely with Washington to get to the root of what is suspected to be the growing local influence of al-Qaeda and its Arab-Maghreb satellite in Nigeria. As experts from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) arrived in Nigeria a few days after the 16 June bombing, Boko Haram boasted that some of its operatives had recently been trained in Somalia, Yemen and Afghanistan.
Links with al-Qaeda and North African groups may not only have enhanced the sophistication of Boko Haram’s operations, it has infused an international political agenda to its fundamentalist goals. Previously there were real doubts that the group has sleeper cells linked to al-Qaeda or that Boko Haram is associated to other global terror groups. Its world view was internally directed. The arrests and charging of several individuals since 2006 for having links to international terrorist groups and having received training from AQIM yielded no evidence, and no convictions appear to have resulted from these cases. Mohammed Yusuf was arrested in 2009 for alleged links with al-Qaeda, but no evidence came to light.
However, the bombing of the UN in Abuja effectively propelled the group from a domestic Islamist fundamentalist cause to an instrument of international political terror. This would seem to be a natural evolution given that Boko Haram thrashes as evil not only western education and western civilisation. The bombing of the UN building would appear to be a deliberate and conscious decision. It was a bold statement not only to Nigeria, but to the international community.
But the group’s ultimate goal would appear to be to delegitimise the Nigerian secular state through the imposition of an Islamic state driven by Sharia Law. In this, the violent campaign of Boko Haram threatens the stability of the Nigerian state.
A Nigerian problem
The environment of mass poverty, social dislocations and associated intense religiosity that has spawned Boko Haram reflects the deep malaise and frustration with the Nigerian state. This environment has spawned various radical groups across a spectrum of diverse causes across the country. The country’s oil-producing south-east region is home to various militant groups. Last year, one such organisation from the country’s crude-producing Niger Delta claimed responsibility for a series of explosions that marred the celebration of Nigeria’s 50th independence anniversary on 1 October 2010. Paradoxically, the radical groups in the South East have condemned the Boko Haram as vehicles for continued northern political domination of the country.
Many of the factors that have fuelled Boko Haram’s attacks are common across Nigeria: in particular, the political manipulation of religion, ethnicity, and disputes between supposed local groups and “settlers” over distribution of public resources. Deep-seated economic and employment inequalities have further destabilised the country of 155 million. As with other parts of Nigeria, the north, where Boko Haram sprang from, suffers from a potent mix of economic malaise and contentious, community-based distribution of public resources.
Nigeria Government reactions
The attack on the UN in Abuja has raised significant doubts about President Goodluck Jonathan’s capacity and political astuteness to rein in Boko Haram’s terror attacks. Nigeria’s security forces have attempted to crackdown on the group’s activities but with little result. A massive crackdown which began in 2009 and is known as “Operation Flush” led to violent clashes and the killing of 700 people in Borno State. The government has increased its military presence in the capital and other northern states, but the clamp down has only fuelled further tensions. It has also faced heavy criticism from human right groups who have accused Nigeria’s army of unlawful killings in the fight against Boko Haram.
The heavy hand of the military has elicited massive protests over the killing of innocent civilians in these operations. In late July, President Jonathan set up a special fact-finding committee, which includes the ministers of defence and labour, and will work with the national security adviser, to negotiate with Boko Haram after a meeting between Jonathan and local leaders in Borno state. It is mandated to review security problems in Borno state and provide recommendations to improve the situation in the region. It was to hold talks with the group and was expected to report back to the government by 16 August, but its submission has been delayed.
Boko Haram is reported to have said that it will only come to the table if all of its demands are met, including the resignation of the Borno state government over the death of its leader. This approach has been condemned by many groups from the South as pandering to politics rather than taking decisive measures to root out what they see as a menace.
The 26 August attacks are a clear indication that Boko Haram is likely to intensify its wave of unrest and growing extremism. But the deadly post-presidential election violence in the north and the repeated bomb blasts by Boko Haram since President Jonathan’s inauguration are indications of the enormous challenges facing the new government. It must show more determination and will to contain violence in society.
The government needs to build cooperation with the local population in Borno State who feel increasingly alienated especially after brutal military crackdowns. Many of Boko Haram’s members live among the community. Addressing chronic poverty and underdevelopment in the north – a major grievance – will strengthen the government’s hands.
Comfort Ero is Africa Program Director at the International Crisis Group