Originally Published 2012-02-07 00:00:00 Published on Feb 07, 2012
The January 20, 2012 attacks in Nigeria's northern city of Kano, which left at least 185 police and residents dead, was the biggest attack carried out by Boko Haram, a Sunni extremist group which owed allegiance to al Qaida and called for an Islamist rule.
Boko Haram's growing threat
The January 20, 2012 attacks in Nigeria’s northern city of Kano, which left at least 185 police and residents dead, was the biggest attack carried out by Boko Haram, a Sunni extremist group which owed allegiance to al Qaida and called for an Islamist rule. The attack has raised serious questions about the group’s intent and capability to destabilise Nigeria and the surrounding areas.

Even though it attacked an international target, the United Nations headquarters in Abuja last August, the group is not an international threat. While links with al-Qaeda have been claimed from both sides (the government and the group’s leader), observers state that Boko Haram essentially remains a local occurrence. The group’s grievances are local such as corruption and poverty, and their objective, the implementation of Sharia law, is restricted to Nigeria alone.

Boko Haram, which came to fore in July 2009, has grown considerably in its capability since then, posing an increasing threat to Nigeria’s stability. The group has proclaimed that their fight is against the government and wants revenge for the crackdown against them. The rising sectarian violence in the country can be attributed to the constant attacks in the north carried out by the group. Almost all attacks so far have occurred in areas where Boko Haram has a strong support base. These attacks have driven the Christian population from the north.

The fact that the group has threatened to continue such attacks raises the level of threat within Nigeria which seems to be moving towards a state of chaos. The last few months have been particularly hard for the country as it witnessed bomb attacks, shootings and massive strikes. Since the beginning of the New Year, the country has lost the lives of several civilians and faced nation wide strikes. The country was paralysed for almost a week due to the strikes in protest of the slashing of fuel subsidy by the government on January 1.

Nigeria, like other African countries, is faced with various dichotomies, such as Muslim-Christian, rich-poor, north-south, that have been instrumental in leading to instability within the country. The group has built its support by using these dichotomies to their benefit. The dichotomies are, however, not as sharp as are sometimes made out to be. Even though there has been a clear divide between the Muslims and Christians due to the majority of Muslims in north and most of the Christians living in south, the segregation between the two groups is not monolithic. Inter-faith marriages have been known to take place and Muslims in the south have also been affected by the attacks. The problems of corruption, poverty and scarce resources have affected both communities and have been the driving factors behind most of the conflicts. Boko Haram has used these secular factors and given them a religious undertone in order to garner support for its actions against the state. Nevertheless, it is not that Nigeria lacks religious issues.

The group, however, cannot be said to fight for the entire Muslim population of Nigeria. In a recent interview with The Guardian newspaper, the group’s spokesperson Abu Qaqa stated that for the group there is no exception to following the Sharia law. He said that they will kill even those Muslims who don’t abide by Sharia. The group sees the secular nature of the state as the reason behind the problems faced by the people of Nigeria.

President Jonathan, who is being criticised for not being able to deal effectively with the group, recently announced that the government is now ready to talk to it. He has asked the group to state their demands so that a dialogue can be arranged. His call for a dialogue has, however, been rejected by the claimed religious leader of the group.

While poverty and corruption are issues that are faced by other African countries as well, the presence of an extremist group that has used them to promote its agenda has put President Jonathan’s government in a difficult position. It is clear that until the fundamental issues faced by the people are addressed, Boko Haram will continue to feed on the growing frustration in Nigeria.

Priyanka Mehrotra is Research Assistant, ORF

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