The dangers of Nigeria’s extremist Islamic movement

By Jonathan Power

The governor of the north-eastern Nigerian state of Yobe, Ibrahim Geidam, where the extremist and murderous Boko Haram movement had its origins, told me that the situation is now “under control”. He pointed to the recent arrest of its spokesman and the way he was cooperating with his interrogators.

He also told me of the splits that had developed in the movement. President Goodluck Jonathan in a rare one hour interview told me much the same. But he added a caveat. Boko Haram still has plenty of destructive power. “Who is to know if they have infiltrated major institutions, even here in the presidential compound. It might be a cook, a cleaner or a driver, waiting for their moment to explode a bomb.”

In his opinion the movement gets support in both ideology and arms from Al Qaeda’s north African affiliate and the Islamic extremist movement in Somalia. However, when I talked to former president Olusegun Obasanjo, he told me that the evidence for that was not watertight.

Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Laureate for Literature, has said that the situation is not dissimilar to the one that existed during the civil war of the 1960s when oil-rich Biafra in the east attempted to secede from Nigeria. He points to the years of insurgency, the recent blowing up of the UN mission and the 160 who were killed in Kano by gunmen who sprayed their weapons at Muslims and Christians alike, including women and children.

Indeed, the leader of Boko Haram has said they are targeting Muslims as well as Christians which is decidedly odd since they say they are fighting on behalf of Islam and the strict implementation of severe Shari’a law.

But President Jonathan demurs: “It is not the same as the civil war. We knew the enemy and where he was. Now we don’t.”

Defeating it is a tricky business, to say the least. The police have often used violent tactics. This has led to a backlash, recruiting more members for the movement. They even allowed the head of Boko Haram who they had arrested to escape from jail. Jonathan recently replaced the Nigerian police chief.

Some observers compare this with the insurgency that until recently terrified the people of the Niger Delta including the expatriate oil workers they kidnapped for ransoms. The fighters made themselves rich on stealing oil. Jonathan and his predecessor, Umaru Yar’Adua, managed to win a truce and awarded the fighters handsome “scholarships” so they could train for skilled work. For the most part it seems to have worked.

But Obasanjo decries this. “Once the principle of buying off is established the blackmail will continue and other radical groups like Boko Haram will demand the same. Jonathan disagrees. “One cannot compare the two movements”, he argues. “The Delta militants had to be part compensated for the large amounts they were making from oil bunkering”. “Buying off” will not be used with Boko Haram, an ideological movement not a gangster one.

Most of Nigeria is unaffected by the movement. Despite the departure of frightened Christians to the south most of the country is not perturbed. When the killings have taken place in the north Moslems moved to protect churches and the Christians reciprocated by sending people to protect mosques.

Neighbouring countries have also helped. Cameroon has been a haven for the militants to escape to. Now it, Chad and Niger are cooperating with the Nigerian police. Besides this the Americans have sent bomb disposal experts and are clearly prepared to do more if asked.

The Muslim north is much poorer than the Christian south, held back for over a century by conservative clerics and leaders. Education is poor and health clinics are scarce and youth unemployment is high. One does not find the rip-roaring economic progress prevalent in the south. Without the drag of the north Nigeria would have double digit economic growth rate.

The poverty has contributed to the rise of Boko Haram, although the president makes the valid point that there are many countries with dire poverty including Muslim ones where there is no political violence.

In an article last week in the newspaper, “The Leadership”, Ms Ayisha Osori attacked the Yobe governor. His priorities are wrong, she argues. He spends money on unnecessary projects. Agriculture is ignored. There is too much corruption and the law is ineffectively enforced.

It will take years to defeat Boko Haram, just as it did to defeat the insurgency of the Delta. The country is already judging Jonathan by his ability (lack of it, critics say) to get on top of the situation. It will certainly test the metal of the president who otherwise is making great strides with his domestic economic and social policies. We will see.

© Jonathan Power 2012

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