Follow palashbiswaskl on Twitter

Saturday, September 29, 2012

A threat to the entire country Who and what is Boko Haram, the Muslim extremist group that is terrorising northern Nigeria?

A threat to the entire country
Who and what is Boko Haram, the Muslim extremist group that is terrorising northern Nigeria?
Sep 29th 2012 | KANO | from the print edition

LOUDSPEAKERS at the governor's mansion in Kano come to life every Friday with the voice of an imam, summoning hundreds of officials to take small mats to the car park and line them up on the tarmac to pray. They used to visit a local mosque but no longer feel safe enough to venture outside a Baghdad-style green zone. Nearby streets are blocked with man-high barriers; entry is via a few well-run checkpoints where even residents must show documents to reach homes protected by walls topped with razor wire. Policemen in fortified pillboxes watch crossroads. The streets are lined with drums filled with concrete to stop anyone parking car-bombs.

Kano, the northern capital, and much of the country's northern half, where 90m or so of Nigeria's 160m people live, are under siege. Muslim extremists are carrying out a campaign of bombings and assassinations that has left more than 1,000 people dead this year. Fear has crawled into every corner of public life. The economy has crashed. Traders in Kano say that sales are down by a half as customers dare not venture out. "When people hear a loud noise now they run," says Alhaji Suleiman, a property manager. Explosions are so frequent, says a worried father, that his four-year-old son can identify them.

Conspiracy theories abound. Just about anyone with a stake in national politics is liable to be blamed. Some northerners claim that the south may be looking for an excuse to break away and lay sole claim to Nigeria's offshore oil. By contrast, some members of the federal government in Abuja suggest that the northern political elite is masterminding the violence to make President Goodluck Jonathan, a southerner, look bad at the next election. Others suggest that the security forces want to fuel the crisis because it keeps pushing up their budget.

Some of these allegations have a grain of truth, but no more. The security forces do indeed get extra funds, some of which ends up in private pockets. Some politicians stand to gain, so turn a blind eye on occasion. But the origins of the strife are a decade old. "We started as a small group of faithful who wanted nothing to do with politics," says a man calling himself Abdullah, who says he is a member of Boko Haram ("Western education is sacrilegious"), the group that claims responsibility for some but not all of the attacks.

The original members were mostly ethnic Kanuri fishermen from Borno state, bordering Lake Chad, which is rapidly drying out. A decade ago they flocked to the sermons of Muhammad Yusuf, an eccentric and conservative but non-violent imam, who demanded strict adherence to the Koran, rejected Darwinian evolution and taught that the earth is flat. Boko Haram had swept into Borno's capital, Maiduguri, a magnet for the region's rural poor.

Tucked away in the remote north-eastern corner of Nigeria, Borno is one of its most mismanaged states, which is saying something. Its literacy rate is two-thirds lower than in Lagos, the southern business hub. Fewer than 5% of women in parts of Borno can read or write. Income per head is 50% lower than in the south, school attendance 75% lower. In the past the state government has been a byword for corruption. Elections have been noted for their thuggishness and dishonesty.

By contrast, Yusuf built up a disciplined sect that provided free food, education and hope to its followers. Sensing a threat, the then governor set out in 2002 to destroy it. Hundreds of its members were killed, along with bystanders. In one episode, security forces killed 19 motorcyclists for not wearing helmets. But the crackdown made people revere Yusuf all the more. He attracted new followers, including some that had been in touch with Muslim militants in countries of the Sahara, such as Algeria, Mali and Niger. They wanted to fight the governor under the banner of jihad, inspired by al-Qaeda and Afghanistan's Taliban. Some went off to train in east Africa.

By 2009, when Boko Haram had become increasingly violent, the governor brought in extra security forces, who killed around 1,000 people. Thousands more were rounded up and held without trial. Yusuf was shot dead, apparently by a police firing squad. Boko Haram's survivors fled to neighbouring countries to regroup. The government's indiscriminate crackdown, led by troops from the south, let them close a long-standing ethnic division in northern Nigeria between Kanuris and the dominant Hausa-Fulani. Both now saw Nigeria's southern ethnic groups, the national security forces and a corrupt northern elite as a common enemy.

Grander ambitions

In late 2010 a resuscitated Boko Haram went back to Nigeria. What had started as a religious protest movement turned into a full-blown insurgency. The group signalled a grander ambition by renaming itself Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad, meaning in Arabic "People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad". Communiqués challenged the elected government's legitimacy and demanded a sterner application of sharia law, which was already supposed to have been enacted in northern Nigeria's Muslim-majority states.

Yet Boko Haram's fundamental outlook had not changed. Two grievances continued to drive it. The first was the indiscriminate killing of its members. In return, Boko Haram's leaders encourage its members to target people and institutions that have harmed it: policemen, officials, prison guards, clerics and journalists who speak out against it. Its members have twice attacked This Day, a newspaper close to the government. During September the group felled at least 20 mobile-phone towers belonging to telecom companies that facilitate government surveillance. For the insurgents, revenge is sweet.

Boko Haram's other big grievance is economic inequality. It blames the government at every level for corruption and greed. Nigeria earns roughly $50 billion a year from its southern oil yet its northern citizens hardly benefit at all. "Boko Haram is a resistance movement against misrule rather than a purely Islamic group," says Josiah Idow-Fearon, the Anglican bishop of Kaduna, one of Nigeria's biggest northern cities.

In the past two years, Boko Haram's tactics have become more sophisticated. Whereas it used to shoot at policemen from the back of motorbikes, now its leaders dispatch members prepared to commit suicide in car-bombs filled with industrial explosive to buildings such as the national police headquarters in Abuja. For years most Nigerians thought there would be no home-grown suicide bombers. "We love life too much," they used to say. Recently a 15-year-old boy was caught as he was about to blow himself up in Maiduguri.

At the same time, the group has vastly expanded its geographical reach. It has carried out attacks across northern Nigeria and as far afield as Abuja in central Nigeria. The proportion of attacks outside Borno has risen this year from 22% to 64%, according to a leading counter-insurgency expert. The overall rate of attacks is 50% higher than last year, as is the death toll. On January 20th dozens of fighters swarmed into several police barracks in Kano and held them for a few hours, leaving about 200 people dead. Boko Haram has targeted a number of senior politicians, including Nigeria's vice-president, whose home in Zaria was hit, and a senator at a funeral.

The campaign has accentuated the misery that led to Boko Haram's rise in the first place. Food prices have soared in the north. Farmers are afraid to go to markets. Government salaries are paid even later than before. Funds to repair roads have disappeared. Businessmen who sell bulletproof doors for about $800 are among the few who prosper. In hospitals patients have to bring their own drugs and needles. Polio may well rise again, since immunisation has dwindled. With the police diverted, rape and robbery have shot up. Aid agencies now rarely send staff to the north. Diplomats almost never go. Southerners are also feeling the heat. In Lagos roads leading to churches, a favourite target, are often closed on Sundays. The occupancy rates of hotels in Abuja have plunged.

The government still sees Boko Haram mainly as a security problem. "Those around the president don't understand what is driving the conflict," says a veteran diplomat. There are exceptions. Sambo Dasuki, a northerner recently appointed by the president as his national security adviser to devise "a new anti-terror strategy", has sought to talk to Boko Haram. His recent tour of the north to discuss the problem was the first of its kind by a national leader. But most advisers are in the mould of Major-General Sarkin-Yaki Bello, a prominent member of the national security council who thinks Boko Haram can and must be squashed militarily.

Northern leaders tend to sing a different tune, emphasising a need for economic development, but play down Boko Haram's attraction. Kano's governor, Rabi'u Musa Kwankwaso, has opened new schools and installed streetlights to improve security. Yet he is loth to acknowledge the situation's gravity, even as he sits inside a fortified mansion. "Things are better now. We have lifted the curfew," he says. In separate interviews, the governor and his police commissioner refused even to utter the name of Boko Haram, instead referring to "miscreants". "Of course you may be aware we had some little incidents," says the commissioner, standing next to a state-of-the-art bomb-disposal suit, with four bodyguards close at hand.

Thumping isn't working

The security forces and their heavy-handed approach are plainly part of the problem. Citizens are routinely kept waiting and humiliated at checkpoints. Bala Abdullahi of the Civil Society Forum in Kano says, "We have seen an unprecedented rise in rights violations this year. It seems to continue with impunity. We are trying to draw political leaders' attention to this but they refuse to meet us." Anyone thought rude is made to do painful exercises known as "frog-jumps". Others are forced to roll in the gutter. "I'd rather live under Boko Haram if this is how it goes," says a university teacher.

Curfews are imposed without warning and shops are then broken into, often—it is thought—by soldiers. People forced to abandon motorbikes at the scene of an explosion are often arrested as suspects when they return to pick them up. Following an Easter Sunday bombing in Kaduna, when 38 people were killed, the survivors, nearly all of them motorbike drivers, had to pay hefty bribes to retrieve their bikes.

After attacks the security forces, invariably trigger-happy, often surround entire districts and arrest all the men within—and sometimes shoot a lot of them. On September 25th, forces in the city of Damaturu proudly announced that they had killed 35 Boko Haram members in a single night-time raid and had arrested "several" of them. According to the Open Society Foundation, an NGO, the Nigerian police kill 2,500 people a year. Suspects who survive an initial encounter are likely to be locked up without trial, sometimes indefinitely.

Though reckoned one of west Africa's better armies, Nigeria's has not been trained to fight an insurgency. Boko Haram exploits their ineptitude. After setting off bombs, its people fire a few shots in the air, then sit back as soldiers fire randomly into the crowd, hoping in vain to get the perpetrator but invariably killing innocents.

For all their crudity, the security forces have pulled off the odd success, killing a lot of Boko Haram members in recent months. They have got better at collecting and evaluating intelligence. Operation Yaki ("War") in Kaduna is said to have gone well. In Kano the police have retrained 3,000 officers, bringing army and intelligence units sensibly under one command.

Still, Boko Haram has succeeded in driving a wedge between the state and the people. After two years of intense conflict it is battle-hardened, adapting to the heavy security in its heartland and creating a command-and-control structure. Yusuf's successor as leader, Abubakar Shekau, in his 30s, is said to be devout and humble, and is probably based in neighbouring Niger. Boko Haram's 32-man shura council meets regularly, probably outside Nigeria. The second-in-command is Mamman Nur, who once studied in Sudan and masterminded the bombing that blew up the UN's headquarters in Abuja last year.

Is negotiation thinkable?

The council issues orders to its thousands of followers and would have to endorse any peace deal with the government. But Boko Haram covers a wide spectrum. It comprises an ever-greater number of malcontents with a variety of aims. Some are criminals using the Boko Haram label to disguise the motives for attacks. Rival nightclub owners in Kano are said to have bombed each other's venues and then posted bogus Islamist-sounding claims of responsibility, hoping to fool the police.

At the other end of the spectrum are diehard Islamists who fervently desire the demise of the secular state and want to bring Boko Haram under al-Qaeda's umbrella, along with groups in Mali and elsewhere in the Sahara. The Nigerian police have found bomb-making manuals in Arabic on seized laptops. Radicals are said to dominate Boko Haram in the north-west.

So far the shura council has represented a "broad mosque", perhaps partly to bring in funds from a range of supporters, including criminal gangs and al-Qaeda. The group has been carrying out a growing number of kidnappings, with ransoms sometimes paid, especially for foreigners. On other occasions the victims have been killed in shoot-outs with the police.

Local governments, under pressure from the federal centre, are becoming less willing to pay Boko Haram protection money. A previous governor of Kano created a religious police known as the hisbah that was empowered to hand over part of its budget to fend off the extremists, thus apparently sparing Kano from major attacks. That practice of paying off the group has now stopped. Police killed a religious-affairs commissioner in Borno who had made a similar arrangement.

Could the central government ever come to terms with Boko Haram? So far the group's aims—among other things, greater equality for the Muslim north and a sterner application of sharia law—are fairly vague. The radicals among them may want to break up Nigeria and drive Christians out of the north. If the likes of Mr Dasuki have their way, the federal government will seek to peel the more flexible of Boko Haram's people away from the ultras and negotiate a better deal, especially on the economic front, for northerners. But that eventuality seems miserably far off.


Hold your nose and talk

Nigeria will tear itself apart unless it finds a political solution to the violence in the north
Sep 29th 2012 | from the print edition

IF THE gravity of a conflict can be measured by the length of the guns employed, it is worth noting that soldiers at checkpoints in Nigeria's north have started fixing bayonets to their barrels. More than 1,000 people have died in terror attacks there this year, an increase of more than 50% on 2011. In response the government has deployed a heavily armed security force on the streets of Africa's most populous nation to fight the perpetrators, a Muslim extremist group called Boko Haram ("Western education is sacrilegious"). It strives, among other things, for better governance and strict adherence to Islam.

The conflict (see article) has the potential to engulf the entire country. Nigeria's population of 160m people is evenly divided between Muslims and Christians, and many of them get along. But relations have worsened in recent years, partly because of land disputes. Clashes are increasingly common and religious ghettoes are forming in mixed cities. Boko Haram has attacked churches. Some politicians talk openly of a possible division of the country—an exceedingly dangerous prospect. When Nigeria's territorial integrity was last in question, during the Biafran war four decades ago, 1m people died

The insurgency is doing great economic damage, too. Foreign and domestic investors have fled. The GDP of northern Nigeria is reckoned to have shrunk by around 30% since 2010. Public services have ceased in some places because frightened civil servants no longer turn up for work. The gap between the already poor north and the wealthy south is widening fast.

The conflict may be spreading. About 300 Boko Haram fighters have been spotted in Mali, with Islamic extremists who earlier this year captured the north-east of the country. Boko Haram has links to various groups affiliated to al-Qaeda. Last year it blew up the UN head office in Nigeria. Several insurgencies in north-west Africa could fuse to create a vast ungoverned space including Niger, Chad and southern Libya—to function as a haven for militants preparing attacks.

The Nigerian government's response is not helping. That is partly because of corruption. A quarter of the national budget is spent on security. Some of that money goes on the purchase of sophisticated weapons whose purpose is more to line the pockets of corrupt officials than to defeat insurgents. The government is also heavy-handed. More Nigerians are killed by the police every year than by Boko Haram. Paramilitary forces, known as "go and kill" units, undermine popular support for the government in the north. The rounding up and imprisonment of the wives and children of Boko Haram leaders has only increased sympathy for the group.

Spread the wealth northwards

To believe, as many southerners do, that Boko Haram is run by nihilists or acts as a vehicle for the president's enemies is to misunderstand the problem. The insurgency cannot be crushed by purely military means, for it is born of the poor north's understandable resentment of the wealthy south. The fact that the north-east, where Boko Haram originates, has among the worst health and education in the world is a disgrace in a country which produces about as much oil as Iran.

Improving economic and social conditions in the area will be difficult while people are not safe. So the government needs both to hunt down the group's most extreme leaders and ensure that the security services take more trouble not to kill civilians in their effort. At the same time, it needs to make a serious effort not just to offer emergency aid in areas of great hardship, but also to extend the provision of health care, education, transport infrastructure and electricity. Releasing those wives and children would also be a good idea, for the government will have to negotiate with the movement's more flexible leaders. Bigger guns will not blow Boko Haram away.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...


Website counter


Blog Archive