Nigeria's simmering ethno-religious tensions have entered a deadly new phase with the August 26 suicide bombing of the United Nations building in a relatively safe district of the national capital, Abuja. At least 23 were killed and 73 injured in this first attack on an international body in the country. The U.N. has condemned the bombing and stated that the mission's senior staff would remain at their post. The extremist Islamist group, Boko Haram, has claimed responsibility, as it has done for several other attacks and bombings since 2009. It is true that Nigeria's population of 160 million — the largest of any African state — is sharply divided on religious lines, with a Christian-majority south and a Muslim-majority north. But Boko Haram's propagation of hardline Islamism has been openly violent only since the middle of 2009, when followers rioted in the north-eastern city of Maiduguri and the central government cracked down brutally, killing more than 700 people in the process. The group's violence intensified further after its leader, Mohammed Yusuf, died in police custody.

Given Boko Haram's extremist ideology, it would be easy to neglect factors that have exacerbated the current tensions. Various northern Nigerian politicians had issued warnings about the group's proclivities, as had at least one senior police officer, but these were ignored. Secondly, the benefits of the country's oil wealth have not reached enough ordinary people, with northern provinces being particularly neglected. Further, official self-enrichment in one of the world's most corrupt countries is a longstanding cause of frustration and alienation for the bulk of the population. A positive factor is that Nigeria's main political parties are genuinely national. In the April 2011 presidential election, the winner, People's Democratic Party leader Goodluck Jonathan, had support throughout the country. The north witnessed a strong turnout of women voters, and northern politicians even apologised to Boko Haram for the severity of the 2009 crackdown. While some observers fear that the attack on the U.N. indicates contact between Boko Haram and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Nigeria has the political systems and the political culture to withstand such threats. It will, however, be vital for the central government to curb corruption and improve the functioning of public institutions if the trust and confidence the public showed during the elections are to be strengthened. That would also reveal whether the hard-line Islamist elements are more troubled by Nigerian Muslims' commitment to democracy than they are by the country's religious divide.

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