Nigeria under siege

Africa’s most populous nation risks becoming the new battleground for the global war on terror

The next Mali

Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images

Is Africa’s most populous nation becoming the latest battleground in the global war on terror?

Last week, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan proclaimed emergency rule in three northern states, deploying fighter jets and thousands of troops to the region to quell an Islamist insurgency that he says has taken over parts of the country and “become a very serious threat to national unity.” The surprise campaign against the little-known group called Boko Haram—said to be responsible for the deaths of some 2,000 people since 2009—marks a serious change of direction for a government that until recently has been dangling offers of amnesty, job training, scholarships and even PTSD counselling for rebels who lay down their arms. “We exercised restraint to allow for all efforts by both state governors and well-meaning Nigerians to stop the repeated cases of mindless violence,” the president said in a nationally televised speech. But no longer. “We will hunt them down, we will fish them out and we will bring them to justice.”

For months now, residents of Borno, Yobe and Kano, three remote, arid and overwhelmingly Muslim states that border Chad, Niger and Cameroon, have been subject to a dusk-to-dawn curfew and a heavy police and military presence. But within hours of the emergency proclamation there were reports of gunfire, explosions and a pitched battle involving the shelling and strafing of a game reserve where the rebels are believed to have set up camp. The escalation raises the worrying prospect that Nigeria—home to more than 250 different ethnic groups, with its population of 160 million roughly split in half between Christians and Muslims—might now be sliding toward open civil war. Or the kind of foreign-jihadi-fuelled insurgency that dragged French and African forces into nearby Mali earlier this year.

Boko Haram, the local nickname given to the group formally known as Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, which translates as “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad,” emerged as a military entity in 2009. Formed seven years earlier by Sheik Mohammed Yusuf, a charismatic imam from Maiduguri, the capital of Borno, it originally functioned as a religious and social welfare organization with a distinctly odd bent. Not only did the group, whose nickname translates to “Western education is forbidden” in the Hausa language, reject secular schools and Western dress, it also denied evolution as “un-Islamic” and proclaimed the Earth to be flat. But when their dissent over a new law requiring motorcycle riders to wear helmets was met with raids and mass arrests by local authorities, Boko Haram transitioned to violence, attacking police with bows and poison arrows.

Things worsened after security forces stormed their headquarters in 2009, killing hundreds, including Yusuf, whose body was found in the street with his hands still cuffed behind his back, apparently the victim of a summary execution. Starting with drive-by shootings and bombing attacks against local authorities and Muslim leaders, the group quickly moved on to mass attacks like the series of Christmas Eve church bombings that killed 32 Christians in the central Plateau state in 2010. The summer of 2011 saw Boko Haram’s first suicide bombing, a strike against police headquarters in the Nigerian capital of Abuja that left five dead. And that August, the group staged its first attack against a foreign target, when an operative crashed a car into the UN’s Nigerian headquarters and detonated a 100-lb. bomb, killing 23 and injuring 80.

In recent months, a variety of attacks—bombings, shootings and bank robberies—have been attributed to the group. (Boko Haram only occasionally claims responsibility through its web-based “public enlightenment department.”) And the February abduction of seven members of a French family, including four children between five and 12, vacationing in neighbouring Cameroon, marked their first operation outside Nigeria’s borders. (The family were freed after a reported $3-million ransom was paid.)

Still, not everyone is so sure that the group is the threat it is being made out to be. Highly decentralized, its squabbling factions appear to act more like independent franchises than a coherent fighting force. And there are suspicions that criminal gangs and other militias sometimes claim to have acted in their name to throw authorities off their own trail.

“The rise of Boko Haram is about more than just Islamicism,” says Chris Kwaja of the Centre of Conflict Management at the University of Jos, in central Nigeria. Despite its vast oil riches, income disparity remains a huge problem in the country, especially in the Muslim north where 75 per cent live below the poverty line, versus just 25 per cent in the Christian south. Meanwhile, democratic institutions remain weak, corruption rampant and the constitution almost unworkable. “The quest for power in Nigeria is a vicious contest, where you win by mobilizing identities—religious ones, ethnic ones and regional ones,” says Kwaja. And while Boko Haram has grown in size and reach, it is hardly the only threat to national security. Just last week, a botched operation against the Ombatse Militia cult in central Nasarawa state left 46 police and 10 state security officers dead.

In fact, the general deterioration of the situation in Nigeria has left many foreign governments and industries leery of doing business there. Air crews no longer overnight in Abuja, for example. “We are extremely cautious about Nigeria, particularly in the north. We tell clients not to go there if possible,” says Claude Moniquet, a former French intelligence agent who now runs the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Centre, a Brussels-based consultancy. He says the harsh counter-insurgency methods used by the military are hurting more than helping. “They come in and kill everyone. They basically push people into the arms of Boko Haram.” (In one recent example, an attack on an army patrol in the town of Baga was followed by a reprisal raid that burned down more than 2,000 homes, killing 200.)

Nigerian authorities say that the group has received training and support from Islamic militants in Mali and Somalia, as well as funding from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, but there seems to be scant proof of profound links to established terror groups. Back in 2011, Gen. Carter F. Ham, then the head of U.S. Africa Command, told an interviewer that intelligence suggested Boko Haram was trying to forge a “loose partnership” with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), to “coordinate and synchronize” attacks. A subsequent report from the U.S. House committee on homeland security sounded the alarm, calling for better intelligence on the group and more counterterrorism support for the Nigerian government. But so far, the Obama administration has resisted attempts to have Boko Haram added to its formal list of foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs).

Jean Herskovits, a State University of New York historian who has studied Nigerian politics for more than 50 years and provided counsel to several administrations, says she is thankful that U.S. policy-makers seem to grasp the complexity of the situation. An FTO designation would add layers of complication to all financial transactions with Nigeria, hurting the millions who rely on money sent from family abroad. And the Jonathan government, which already devotes 25 per cent of its budget to security with little to show for it, hardly needs more guns and equipment, she adds.

And as Kwaja notes, this state of emergency is not the first to be declared by the Nigerian president. The previous declaration, over fears of the same group, was in December 2011. “The government is resorting to the use of maximum brutality as its only tool,” he says. “And no one is talking about how it worked the last time.”

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