Terrorism in Nigeria 
A New Front

The emergence of Boko Haram reflects the internal failures of Nigeria’s government

Internal Upheaval: Nigeria is almost evenly divided between Christians and Muslims. Photo by kippster via Flickr.

Internal Upheaval: Nigeria is almost evenly divided between Christians and Muslims. Photo by kippster via Flickr.

Boko Haram, an Islamic extremist group sometimes referred to as the “Nigerian Taliban”, has carried out increasingly sophisticated attacks since its founding in 2002. Its targets have expanded from government organisations to churches, schools, media outlets, bars and mosques belonging to rival Muslim groups across northern Nigeria. According to the BBC, these attacks have killed more than 1,000 people of both faiths since 2009.

Boko Haram’s recent escalation from small-scale shootings to sophisticated high-powered explosives has fuelled speculation that the group receives training and support from other radical organisations, such as al-Shabab in Somalia and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. In an interview with The Guardian, Boko Haram’s spokesperson recently confirmed this link, stating “al-Qaeda are our elder brothers. We enjoy financial and technical support from them”. Earlier this year, the group uploaded videos to YouTube, which closely mirrored al-Qaeda broadcasts, showing its new leader draped in camouflage and positioned between two AK-47 assault rifles.

However, the al-Qaeda connection should not be accepted unquestioningly. Boko Haram’s reach and concerns are still overwhelmingly domestic. Moreover, despite its new funding, the group is still visibly disorganised; its command structure is unclear and supposedly official messages are often inconsistent. Analysts suspect that disparate criminal groups may be using the name and that the original group has split into different factions, only some of which have links outside Nigeria.

A Government at War with Itself

Claims of allegiance to al-Qaeda may be a ploy to boost the group’s credibility while deflecting growing accusations that the group harbours internal allies. Rumours swirl in the Nigerian media that certain northern politicians are discreetly supporting Boko Haram in order to make the country ungovernable and ensure the return of political power to the north. These northern elites feel betrayed by current President Goodluck Jonathan, who, by standing for elections last year, failed to honour Nigeria’s power-rotating pact, an informal agreement that calls for the presidency to shift between the Christian south and Muslim north every eight years.

The alleged involvement of northern politicians may help to explain why the current administration has handled the situation with such disquieting laxity. Following the 2011 Christmas Day attacks, Jonathan provoked ire by calling the bombings “one of the burdens we must live with” and conceded that members and sympathisers of Boko Haram had infiltrated his government, the armed forces, and the police. This latter acknowledgement was already evident from the group’s possession of high-level intelligence and access to classified information, which enabled it to carry out attacks without warning and evade capture.

Jonathan has had some success. In what may be its biggest victory yet, his government claimed on May 12th to have captured one of the organisation’s key leaders in a raid on the ancient city of Kano. Jonathan’s government has also continued to call for ceasefire and dialogue with the group. Nevertheless, his administration remains hobbled by a visible unwillingness to confront this extremely politicised situation.

Political Divisions, Physical Divides

The combination of escalating sectarian violence and inadequate government response has led to murmurs of impending national breakup. Under British colonial rule, Nigeria’s Muslim north and part Christian, part animist south were governed as separate protectorates, and were only amalgamated in 1914 for commercial convenience.

Boko Haram seems eager to reignite Nigeria’s long history of regional tension. The group has explicitly called for all southerners to leave the north, even setting a deadline in some regions and carrying out reprisal attacks on those who stayed. Although some southerners have relocated, there is no evidence to suggest that this is happening on a sizeable scale. More worryingly, groups in the south have reportedly carried out retaliatory attacks against Muslims. The country teetered on the brink of division during the 1967-1970 Biafran War; in an address to the nation, Jonathan referred to the deepening Boko Haram crisis as “worse than the war”.

Despite these tensions, there are good reasons to believe the country will stay united. Firstly, Boko Haram does not represent the majority of Muslims, although there are valid accusations that moderate Islamic leaders have neglected to strongly condemn the group’s attacks. Most importantly, there is a sense of solidarity in the endemic poverty faced by all, which serves to unite the nation. This was particularly visible from a nation-wide strike in January, which protested the removal of the government’s fuel subsidy. Christians and Muslims marched side by side and formed human shields around each other while praying. Finally, northerners are loath to lose control over the abundant oil reserves located predominantly in the south, particularly in the aftermath of Sudan’s tumultuous division, which has failed to produce a viable oil-sharing agreement.

On the surface, Boko Haram may appear to be a problem of religion but its emergence masks larger political and social problems within Nigeria, including the creeping risk of state failure and disappointment with the current administration. The threat of division is unlikely to materialise, but if the government does not strengthen its response to the growing sectarian violence, it may not last out the year.