MMore than eighty Christians have been killed in recent weeks in northern Nigeria following the ultimatum by the Islamist sect Boko Haram for Christians to leave the largely Muslim northern Nigeria. This only adds to the more than 500 killed last year by the group. The fact that these attacks took place despite the state of emergency existing in Yobe, Borno, Plateau and Niger states as well as a curfew in Adamawa state point to the inadequacy of the security response. Indeed, the security response itself is problematic.
The use of the military and its heavy-handed response has only served to alienate the local population. In one incident, Nigerian soldiers set fire to a whole street of cars, punishing residents for not warning them of a bomb attack. Part of the problem is that the army is a national force and not a local one and therefore does not share the cultural and ethnic background of local residents undermining both trust and sympathy. In the process, some locals are actively supporting Boko Haram. Whilst the group only consists of 300 fighters, its local sympathizers are said to number in their thousands. These sympathizers may also be in government. In a recent speech, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan claimed that Boko Haram sympathisers are also located within the executive and legislative arms of government, in the judiciary as well as in the armed forces, police and other security agencies. Clearly no counter-terrorism effort could be successful in this context and these supposed supporters need to be rooted out. In addition, the Nigerian government also needs to adopt a more focused intelligence-driven approach to counter-terrorism – one which would not alienate the local population. This however, is easier said than done. Professor Murray Last of University College London recently noted that, “Not even the intelligence people in Nigeria know the leadership [of Boko Haram], they are not on top of it at all”.
Any sustainable counter-terrorism effort also needs to consider the broader context in which Boko Haram thrives. Beyond the obvious religious dimensions of the conflict in terms of the demand for sharia law, there is also the socio-economic context. 75 percent of Northern Nigerians live in poverty compared with 27 percent in the South resulting in Northern Nigerians becoming increasingly alienated from Abuja and the central government. Religious differences between North and South are also compounded by ethnic divides. In the volatile mixed city of Jos, for instance, religious and ethnic divides reinforce each other pitting the Christian Berom against the Muslim Hausa.
Commenting on the deteriorating security situation, a hapless President Jonathan drew parallels between Nigeria now and during the 1967-1970 Biafra War when a million people were killed. The difference he lamented was that at least then one knew who and where the enemy was. In the current situation neither does the Nigerian state know who Boko Haram is or where and when they will strike next. Small wonder then, that Nigerian Christians have lost faith in their government’s ability to deal with Boko Haram with Reverend Ayo Oritsejafor, the President of the Christian Association of Nigeria branding the attacks on Christians and churches as a `declaration of war’ – one in which Christians `have no choice but to respond appropriately’.
Whilst sectarian strife threatens Nigeria, US General Carter Ham, head of the US military Africa Command warned that Boko Haram may be expanding because of an alliance with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Somali-based and Al Qaeda aligned Shabaab. This, in turn, raises the danger of overlapping and reinforcing extremist Islamist networks from East Africa to the Sahel and Sahara.