Hours after the swearing-in of Nigeria’s newly-elected President, Goodluck Jonathan, on May 29, a series of bomb explosions tore through North-Eastern Nigeria, killing more than a dozen persons. An extremist Islamic sect called Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the attacks. The sect has been in the news in recent months, and is suspected of responsibility for a number of assassinations and bombings.
Boko Haram came to national prominence in Nigeria in 2009, with an attack on government buildings (mainly police stations – apparently in protest against arrests of sect members by the police) in Northern Nigeria.
At that time I wrote a piece attempting to analyse the situation. It’s never been published, so I’m digging it up, and reproducing it below, in the hope that it will shed some light on the shadowy sect:
ON THE JULY 2009 BOKO HARAM ATTACKS
(written in 2009, previously unpublished)
By Tolu Ogunlesi
In the early hours of Sunday morning, the northern Nigerian state of Bauchi again succumbed to an outbreak of religious violence, only five months after a similar one that claimed at least six lives and left hundreds displaced. Within the first few hours of these latest riots, the death toll had risen to more than thirty. At least five of the initial casualties were policemen.
The violence started in the state capital, Bauchi, in the early hours of Sunday, July 26 (2009), when a band of heavily armed men, belonging to Boko Haram (a shadowy radical Islamic sect led by Mohammed Yusuf, a cleric known for his rabid opposition to Western-style education), invaded a police station ostensibly to free some of their leaders being held. Boko Haram translates to “Education is prohibited”. The police fought back, and the violence quickly spread. The next day the State Government imposed a 9pm to 6am curfew on the city. Mohammed Barau, Police spokesperson in Bauchi was quoted on Monday as saying that “the situation is now under control…”
The situation has however since degenerated rapidly, fanning both east and west to neighbouring Kano, Yobe and Borno states. On Monday, the militants set the new prison complex in Maiduguri, the Borno state capital on fire, and attacked police installations, including the State police headquarters, where they set buildings and vehicles on fire. More policemen were reported to have lost their lives in the Maiduguri attacks. Heavy fighting has since continued until now between the militants and a combined team of police and soldiers, and a dusk-to-dawn curfew has been imposed on the city, whose streets are littered with the bodies of the dead. Attacks on police stations have also been reported in the cities of Potiskum (Yobe State) and Wudil (Kano State).
Early reports, still unconfirmed, linked the militants to the Taliban and to Al-Qaeda. Islamic militants in Northern Nigeria have traditionally claimed links to both organisations, but there is little proof for the claims. The most recent reports from security forces have identified the leaders (as well as significant numbers) of the militants as being of foreign (Nigerien, Chadian and even Sudanese) origin, based on documents found on arrested and killed militants.
Bauchi has a history of being a hotbed of religious violence, which assumed a worrisome dimension with the emergence of democratic rule in 1999. In 2007, Christian-Muslim fighting arising from the demolition of a mosque in Bauchi city by unknown persons claimed at least one life and resulted in the destruction of churches, mosques and residential buildings. In February of this year, at least ten people were killed, and hundreds displaced in the capital in the aftermath of attacks triggered by the early morning burning of a mosque. The attackers were reportedly Muslim sects targeting Christians and Churches in retaliation for the arson attack on the mosque, which the Christians claimed was carried out by deliberately by Muslims to stir up trouble. It took the hurried summoning of the military to prevent the violence from spreading outside Bauchi.
The drafting of soldiers has done very little to stem this latest round of violence. The death toll has now risen to more than 150. There are grave fears that the violence may spread to the vulnerable North-Central state of Plateau, which only last November witnessed one of the worst religious crises in Nigeria in recent times, in which hundreds of Christians and Muslims were massacred, the fallout of hotly contested local elections.
It should however be noted that unlike in the past, where the violence was always targeted mostly at places of worship (churches), and areas with high concentrations of Christian residents, this latest case of violence started as a clash between Islamic militants and the police – with the militants apparently focusing their attention only on police stations and government buildings. However, riots in the North, irrespective of their immediate causes, tend to very quickly take on a religious twist, pitching the predominant Muslim population against the minority Christians, many of whom are typically migrants from Southern Nigeria.
Between 1999 and 2001, 12 Nigerian states (all in the North) of a total of 36 adopted the controversial Islamic legal system, Sharia, which prescribes punishments like public stoning for adultery and amputation for theft. Apart from being against western-style education, Boko Haram’s members are also known to be strong advocates of the imposition of Sharia all over Nigeria. The introduction of Sharia immediately raised tensions between Christians and Muslims, and all of the violence since then (occurring almost every year and claiming thousands of lives) can be traced to these tensions, waiting to be ignited for the flimsiest of reasons.
By Wednesday, an additional contingent on 1,000 soldiers was on its way to the troubled region. But long after the riots are over and displaced persons return to their homes, the questions will linger. At the moment, many are already querying the effectiveness of intelligence gathering by the security operatives, laxity of which is partly to blame for this latest crisis, especially when Bauchi has established for itself a reputation for senseless religious violence. And President Umar Yar’Adua has drawn widespread condemnation for choosing to proceed with a state visit to Brazil while the country burns.
But the biggest question of all will be this: when, and where next?
Tolu Ogunlesi (c) 2009
My most recent NEXT column (ONGOING CONCERNS) which appeared yesterday, also focuses on Boko Haram, and suggests solutions: