Patterns of violence in Northern Nigeria

Northeastern Nigeria’s Boko Haram movement rejects Western-style education, seeks a stronger role for Islam in law and politics, and views the Nigerian state as illegitimate and as an enemy. The group emerged in the 2002-2004 period, when journalists dubbed it the “Nigerian Taliban.” It became infamous in July 2009, when members reacted to perceived persecution by police and launched an attack on police in several states. After a military crackdown that left many members as well as founder Muhammad Yusuf dead, the group lay dormant for a time. But since the fall of 2010, Boko Haram has caused havoc in Maiduguri and elsewhere in the Northeast, conducting assassinations (against police, politicians, and rival Islamic leaders), bombings (including bombings around the time of President Goodluck Jonathan’s May 29 inauguration), and small raids on police stations (more of which occurred last week).

In this post, I look at what Boko Haram hopes to accomplish through violence. My answers are only guesses – so much remains unknown about Boko Haram about Boko Haram and its thinking that it’s hard to do more than look at the movement from the outside and try to identify clues as to its strategies and goals. In Part II, I’ll consider how the government is reacting to the violence.

Probing State Weakness, Targeting Enemies

Boko Haram’s uprisings in 2004 and 2009 failed. The group suffered major casualties, lost its leader, and found that in open battle it was no match for state security forces. But since 2009, as Bloomberg points out, “Boko Haram has shown a more targeted approach.” One analyst elaborates:

“Boko Haram’s strategic focus is to attack institutions of the state to discredit it,” Jude Uzonwanne, Nigeria strategist for Monitor Group, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based investment advisory company, said in a telephone interview on Feb. 10. “They’re likely to intensify the attacks as the elections come closer and it becomes a guessing game how it will end.”

The elections are over, but the violence hasn’t ended yet. Boko Haram’s shift to guerrilla tactics – especially bomb attacks and drive-by shootings conducted by two-man motorcycle teams – suggests it has adopted a long-term strategy of undermining state authority by exposing the state’s limitations. The group still carries out raids, but it has not attempted a large uprising in nearly two years. The new leadership appears to have some degree of patience. Picking off targets and launching regular attacks has the effect of broadcasting the group’s anger, seizing headlines, and heightening people’s uneasiness regarding the actions, or inaction, of elected leaders and security forces. Whether this strategy has increased recruitment for the group is hard to tell, but if nothing else ordinary people in Northeastern Nigeria must now be keenly aware of Boko Haram’s power.

In addition to directing violence at the state, Boko Haram kills Muslim leaders. Assassins have murdered imams and religious personages of various theological stripes, from relatives of the Shehu of Borno (a symbol of the Islamic establishment) to hardline reformist clerics who are themselves anti-establishment. The common thread in these killings is Boko Haram’s desire to silence critics and dominate the field of Islamic discourse in the Northeast. Most of the imams Boko Haram has shot have publicly spoken out against the group’s use of violence. It is possible that Boko Haram is especially keen to assassinate so-called “Wahhabis” whose theological positions are relatively close to Boko Haram’s but who criticize the group; such figures perhaps represent the greatest threat to Boko Haram’s religious credibility. The debates between Boko Haram and its opponents are a reminder of how pluralist the ideological and religious landscape is in Muslim countries (for an example of a religious debate on violence that occurs in a much different context, that of Saudi Arabia, see here and here). In any case, Boko Haram’s killings of imams seem calculated to deter any Muslim leader whatsoever from speaking against the group.

Increasingly, Boko Haram’s violence risks triggering broader Christian-Muslim violence. Recent anti-Christian violence in the North, such as attacks on a Christian pastor and several churches have ratcheted up the rhetoric in the South:

An Anglican Bishop, Rt Rev. Owen Nwokolo has motioned religious fundamentalists in the north that the south would begin reprisal attacks against northerners in their midst if the current spate of killings of innocent southerners in the north continues.

The longer Boko Haram’s campaign of violence continues, the greater the risk that other groups will take up arms as well. This increases pressure on state and federal governments to respond. That response will be the topic of my next post.

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6 Responses to Patterns of violence in Northern Nigeria

  1. Pingback: Boko Haram Series « Sahel Blog

  2. Pingback: Nigeria’s Terrorism Problem « Africa Defense Journal

  3. Pingback: Pourquoi le Nigeria pourrait basculer dans la guerre civile » Savoir ou se faire avoir

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