Nigeria’s homegrown terrorists

What is to be done about the Boko Haram?

By Jackee Batanda


The scene at St Theresa's Catholic Church in Madalla, Christmas Day, after a car bomb explosion killed 43 people. (REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde)

“As the gunmen invaded the church, those who were agile enough took to their heels through any available entrance. Women, who went to the prayer session with their children, made spirited efforts to ferry out their kids, while the men made desperate attempts to take out their family members. But all the effort came to naught, as the gunmen had blocked the church entrances and started spraying bullets into the embattled members before they knew what was going on…

 It was like hell and a drama of some sort,” one woman, who managed to escape before the gunmen opened fire, recalled.”

Thirteen people died that night in Christ Apostolic Church in Jimeta-Yola, eastern Nigeria. It was January 6 2012, Epiphany, the first prayer meeting of the year.  As Muazu Abari writes in Leadership, a national Nigerian daily, the suspected perpetrators were the Boko Haram, Nigeria’s home grown Islamist terrorist group.

We don’t often get headlines from Nigeria in the U.S. but the Boko Haram is making them. This January alone, the Boko Haram killed 250 people across Nigeria. In 2011 they claimed 450 lives including Christmas mass worshipers at St Theresa’s Church in Madalla and many government officials in a bloody attack on the Police headquarters and the UN offices in Nigeria’s capital Abuja.

The Nigerian government seems unable to stop the attacks and ordinary Nigerians remain unsure of their government’s capacity to fight terrorism.

The mysterious escape of a suspected member of Boko Haram in mid January led to the firing of the country’s police chief and six of his deputies. It was, said the president in a statement, the first step in overhauling a force that was suffering from “collapse in public confidence.”

Then last week, on February 1 the police arrested a man they claimed is the Boko Haram spokesperson. There continues to be dispute over the man’s identity although a security source told the New York based Nigerian news source that they were sure they had got their man.

So what’s going on? Who exactly are the Boko Haram? And what is their significance for Nigeria,  Africa’s most populous country and one of the world’s largest oil producers? Are they, as a U.S. Congress report said in November last year, now a global threat to U.S. interests?

Here at Latitude News we have pulled together journalism from Nigeria and around the world that gets behind the headlines to explain the background to these bloody events and that brings you on-the-ground reports about what life is like these days for ordinary Nigerians.

The origins – “western education is forbidden”

In a recent article entitled “Who are Nigeria’s Boko Haram Islamists?”, the BBC Africa Service’s  Farouk Chothia gives a succinct overview of the group’s history. Created in 2003 in Bono State in the northeastern corner of Nigeria, Boko Haram in the local language Hausa means “Western education is forbidden”. The sect calls on its followers to adhere to a strict religious ideology. Its goal is for Nigeria to be an Islamic state. Boko Haram followers are barred from getting a secular education, participating in elections, and wearing trousers.

Education was key to Boko Haram’s rise. People in northeastern Nigeria have resisted Western secular schooling since the arrival of the British colonialists in the early 20th century.  When the sect’s founder, a charismatic Muslim cleric Mohammed Yusuf, opened up a school, he found a receptive community. As it turned out the education was not just in religion but also in violent politics.

2009 was a critical year in the group’s operations. Boko Haram attacked police and state buildings in Maiduguri, the capital city of Bono State. Al Jazeera covered the brutal response of the security forces to the attacks. The disturbing footage below shows security personnel carrying out extra-judicial killings of suspected Boko Haram members. Founder Mohammed Yusuf was captured by the army, handed over to the police and died in custody. His slain body, handcuffs still on was shown on TV casting doubt on the official response that he was shot while trying to escape from custody. At the time, this attack was believed to have fatally weakened the movement.

But it did not. Boko Haram regrouped in 2010 and recommenced its activity by attacking a prison in Maiduguri and freeing its prisoners. Its subsequent attacks have been every more daring and ever more widespread geographically as Reuter’s David Cutler highlights: Jos, Kano, and Abuja as well as Yobe and Borno states.

Is Boko Haram a threat to regional security?

Boko Haram denies it has links with al-Qaeda but the U.S. Congress is not alone in thinking otherwise.

Muhamid Kabir, writing for Champion Newspapers quotes Nigeria’s Foreign Minister Mohamed Bazoum: “There is no doubt that there is confirmed information that shows a link between Boko Haram and AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), and it consists primarily of the training given to elements of Boko Haram. One group has been received in AQIM bases here in the Sahel and another group got training, based on information we’ve gotten, with the Shabaabs in Somalia.”

The group certainly has the rest of Africa worried. Radio Netherlands reported on a UN mission’s concerns that the group’s activities (fueled by weapons smuggled in from Libya) threaten regional stability.

Smoke rises from the police headquarteres in Kano after it was hit by a bomb blast January 20 (REUTERS/stringer)

The U.S. is concerned too. The State Department described the January 20 coordinated bombings in the city of Kano that killed at least 185 people as “really horrific.” In a visit January 24 to the editorial offices of the newspaper This Day, the US Consul General Joseph Stafford “said it [the United States] will partner Nigeria in the fight against terrorism, a phenomenon it [the United States] described as similar to that being faced by Americans.”  Stafford went on to say, however, that   “we do not believe it is solely a security issue. The underlying political and social factors must be taken into consideration. ”

Stafford did not elaborate on this statement but it is probable that he was making a reference to the divide that exists between the country’s north and south. Nigerians are almost equally divided between Christians and Muslims with the Muslims more concentrated in the northern, poorer part of the country and, the Christians more concentrated in the oil-rich south.

For a map of how wealth, ethnicity, literacy, oil and health are divided across the country click on to the BBC’s interactive map.

Living with fear

Fear has changed people’s everyday routines.

In Kano people are afraid to go to church. An investigation by Ibrahim Shuaibu and Omon Julius for ThisDaylive showed that since January 20 many churches are empty. Many people are staying home, others have fled altogether.  Christian schools, the BBC correspondent found, are closed, fearful of the Boko Harm’s threat to target them.

The Kano mosque, too, was only half full and surrounded by policemen with assault rifles, the Independent in London reported, when the traditional Muslim ruler, the Emir of Kano, offered prayers on January 23 for the people killed.

A mourner at the mass funeral for victims of the Christmas Day bombing, February 1. (REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde)

One week later, on February 1, another Emir, this time of the Suleja region in the center of the country, was booed when he arrived to pay his respects to another set of victims, the 48 people who were killed while celebrating Christmas Mass last year at St Theresa’s Catholic church in Madalla, a suburb of Abuja. A reporter from the Leadership newspaper was at the ceremony:

“Trouble started when the monarch who arrived late for the funeral service, attempted to disembark from his vehicle with a retinue of his aides. As soon as the emir and his aides drove into the church, some youths and worshippers who could not find space inside the auditorium started complaining about his presence.

To avoid any unpleasant situation, the monarch remained inside his official vehicle until his presence was announced by the moderator of the service. Once the announcement was made, the people thundered, “No, no, no, and no.”

You can see the same newspaper’s photographs from the funeral service here.

What is to be done?  

Writing in the Christian Science Monitor, Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution and James J.F. Forest of the University of Massachusetts, argue that Boko Haram should be seen as a local militant group not a threat to regional security. They point out that there are other Islamist groups in the north of the country just as there are armed rebels in the Niger Delta in the south.

“Instead of reflexively portraying Boko Haram as a new Al Qaeda affiliate of a monolithic global jihad, US counterterrorism policy needs a more nuanced approach. It should exploit the natural rivalries and misunderstandings among the various terrorist groups. And it should avoid inadvertently driving the often competing and fractious actors together.”

 As to why Nigeria is in such a drastic situation, the experts speak with pretty much one voice: corrupt politics.

 As Olly Owen puts it in the multi-blogging site on contemporary Africa, African Arguments: “it is fair to say that the administration, and others like it in the region, created the conditions for the spread of extremism by fostering thuggish, winner-takes-all corrupt politics at the same time as completely neglecting basic services and education.” Owen argues in favor of grassroots community policing that could win back the trust of people in the North.

 And there’s another critical factor in the Nigeria crisis: oil.

In his piece for African Arguments, Richard Dowden, the  Director of the Royal Africa Society in London, says that President Goodluck Jonathan, “is caught in a perfect storm.” He’s coping with a bombing campaign by the Boko Haram and he’s also provoked social unrest by trying to raise the price of oil. Jonathan, Dowden points out, represents a loss of power for the North since he is both a southerner and a Christian. For some straight talk about why one of the largest oil producers in the world has to import its refined fuel read the piece. It’s depressing.

Dowden isn’t unrelentingly pessismistic though. He points out that in a number of cases Muslims have protected Christian neighbors and vice versa.

That’s also the point made by Chika Unigwe, a Belgian writer of Nigerian origin in an op-ed in the Guardian entitled “Boko Haram is Nigeria’s enemy”. She warns against the bombings being used to divide Nigerian Christians and Muslims further.

“The images that I hang on to are the photographs posted on Facebook during the protests: Christians keeping watch over their Muslim brothers as they prayed, and young Muslim men in Kano visiting churches across the city. The Igbo [the ethnic group living primarily in southeastern Nigeria] have a saying that the hunger that has hope of being stilled does not kill. These photographs convince me that one day we will save Nigeria. ”

Her optimism is not shared by most of the 83 readers who commented on the piece. But it’s thanks to one of them that we came across the 2009 documentary film “The Imam and the Pastor.” It’s about two men who were once bitter enemies but who now run together the Muslim-Christian Interfaith Mediation Centre in their home city of Kaduna, northern Nigeria. According to the Archbishop of Canterbury, the story is a “model for Christian-Muslim relations.” Judge for yourself – the 10 minute trailer is below.

  • Chioma Mba

    Very well done piece Jackee!!
    Nigeria has a long way to go in promoting ethnic and religious tolerance and fighting corruption; all hope is not lost yet!

    • Jackee batanda

      Thank you Chioma and please forward to your networks.