Nigeria under siege

Updated - November 17, 2021 12:10 am IST

Published - January 25, 2012 12:24 am IST

The series of bombings in Kano, Nigeria's second-largest city, which have killed 178 so far and for which the extreme Islamist group Boko Haram has claimed responsibility, reveal many interconnected problems. The attacks were mainly on police buildings, with a view to freeing members held for violent offences; an unspecified number of detainees escaped. Boko Haram killed 510 people in scattered attacks in 2011. The latest episode shows more planning, with police stations, government buildings, and churches being particularly targeted. The sect, founded in 2002, has changed its position over time. Its earlier demands were: the release of followers in captivity; justice for those killed; the withdrawal of the army from the north-eastern city of Maiduguri; and the nationwide imposition of Sharia law. Now, the group wants Christians expelled from the Muslim-majority north. In Hausa, Boko Haram means ‘western education is sinful', and the sect has exploited long-term neglect of the north, which has seen the country's oil-derived benefits go largely to the Christian-majority southern states. The violence has had an effect; southerners settled in the north are starting to move out.

In response, President Goodluck Jonathan says his government will not rest until the terrorists are “wiped out”. Kano is under dusk-to-dawn curfew, and various northern states remain under emergency law. But a longer term response is also essential. There is widespread resentment in the northern region because of the country's unequal development; poverty and low educational levels mean hardliners there can spread hostility to the central government in Abuja, despite the fact that the 2009 crackdown on Yusuf's group was carried out by then president Umaru Yar'Adua, himself a northern Muslim. Secondly, the bulk of terrorist attacks have been in the northern states, with Muslims being the main victims. Furthermore, the north stands to lose much more than the south by any separation, because Nigeria's greatest foreign earner, oil, lies in the southern states. Above all, the overwhelming majority of Nigerians do not take religious differences to extremes; inter-faith marriages are common, and the public are angry about the same things, such as police brutality and official corruption. They also vote mainly on political lines; in the 2011 elections, Mr. Jonathan's Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) did very well in the north. While it makes short-term sense to treat the Kano attacks as primarily a security issue, the President needs to find effective ways of leveraging these qualities of Nigerian society into an effective political weapon against Boko Haram's deadly violence.

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