Islamists gain power in Nigeria

Washington must pay attention to the growing sectarian violence that is ripping the country.

Boko Haram bombing Nigeria 311 R (photo credit: REUTERS)
Boko Haram bombing Nigeria 311 R
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Boko Haram, a militant Islamist group in Nigeria, earned their place at the high table of terrorist organizations by launching a coordinated series of attacks that successfully turned Kano, the country’s second largest city with a population of 9 million, into a blood-drenched warzone. Current estimates have as many as 250 killed.
After an initial explosion at a police station, eight closely-orchestrated attacks occurred across the city, including masked gunman taking to the streets with guns. Local police appeared unable to limit the devastation, which lasted approximately two hours. Weak governmental institution and widespread corruption means that an effective response to Boko Haram is difficult to orchestrate in Nigeria. Rumors are also circulating that the terrorist group has infiltrated key police units, giving them a further advantage.
Their name means “no to Western education” in the Hausa language of north Nigeria, and they have been compared to the Taliban in Afghanistan. They demand immediate implementation of Sharia law and hate moderate Muslims almost as much as Christians and other so-called infidels. They want to overthrow the current government of Nigeria and institute a theocratic one in its place. Nigeria’s current, fragile democratic regime only dates back to 1999.
Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, is fairly evenly divided between Muslims in the north and Christians in the south. The current President, Goodluck Jonathan, represents the latter community. Although President Jonathan has condemned the attacks, it remains unclear how the Nigerian government will overcome the long-term challenge posed by Boko Haram.  Jonathan has recently declared a state of emergency in four other Nigerian states, after atrocities committed by this terrorist group, but Kano was not on that list.  An open civil war between Christians and Muslims would further many of Boko Haram’s strategic goals.
Unfortunately, Jonathan’s hold on power is under threat on other fronts. Earlier this month, he was forced into an embarrassing u-turn over his country’s massive gasoline subsidies, which he had tried to end. The subsidiaries were soon reinstated after several days of strikes by the country’s trade unions, despite the tremendous drain on Nigeria’s public finances.
Last week’s attacks are the most successful of a series of atrocities that have been occurring over the past year.  Since 2009 when their founder and leader, Mohamed Yusuf, was killed by police, Boko Haram has become a bolder and more sophisticated organization, forging ties with al Qaeda and other militant groups. With many of their members dispersed to other countries, such as Cameroon, Chad and Mal,i after Yusuf’s death, the organization may have actual become more effective as a result of this enforced “international outreach”.
Prior to this atrocity, earlier attacks had been made against churches, police stations and the UN headquarters in Nigeria. Over 500 hundred deaths have been attributed to Boko Haram in 2011 alone. Notoriously, on Christmas Day, Boko Haram was responsible for the slaughter of 44 Christian worshippers in the St Theresa Church in the town of Madalla, in northern Nigeria. If it weren’t for an attentive policeman who stopped a would-be car bomber, there could have been even more causalities.
Even though many Christian Nigerians will understand that the views of Boko Haram do not find sympathy among the overwhelming majority of their Muslim countrymen, continued bloodshed could push the country towards a religious sectarian war that few, other than Boko Haram, want.
However, the militants have not limited their violence to Christians. Group spokesmen have made clear that any Muslim who supports or assists the Nigerian government will be deemed to have betrayed Islam, and therefore could be targeted by Boko Haram.
There are many poor young men in northern Nigeria, so unsurprisingly recruitment has not been difficult for Boko Haram. Nigeria is the 6th largest oil producer globally, but few benefits have trickled down to many impoverished Nigerians. For example, the country still must import almost all of its refined gasoline.
Some Nigerians, of course, benefit disproportionate from the steady flow of oil money. A recent report identified the large amounts of money that select Nigerians, benefiting from strong oil prices, have been bringing out of their country and spending on luxury brands in international shopping destinations, such as London.
At least the high-end shops in Knightsbridge and along the Kings Road were able to benefit from this “retail tourism” and have a slightly more merry Christmas!
Nigeria has great economic potential, if ever the constellation of private firms, government agencies and local entrepreneurs could be correctly aligned for long enough to generate lasting prosperity. Violence and sectarian bloodshed, however, limit that potential. A further generation of impoverished Nigerians could be lost if a civil war erupts.
US news reports have largely ignored the horrendous events in distant Kano. Importantly, the dangers posed by Islamist extremist are not limited to Western or Christian or developed countries. Kano demonstrates that these concerns are of global importance.
Hopefully, with an American president who has such an intimate, personal tie to Africa, the international community will not be allowed to  ignore Nigeria. Nigerians have many of the same concerns that we do. To ignore their plight is to undermine our own need for peace and security. Washington should not turn its back on the potential unraveling of such a highly volatile region.