Yesterday, a Nigerian Islamist group called Boko Haram attacked a police station in Bauchi city, in the northeastern part of the country. Estimates by local sources and journalists range from thirty to fifty killed.
Is there a connection between Boko Haram and Al Sunna wal Jamma, a group that emerged in Yobe in northeastern Nigeria in December 2003? These rebels, who earned themselves the name “Nigerian Taliban” by proclaiming their sympathies for the Taliban in Afghanistan, fought with police and the military for about two weeks in the towns of Kanamma and Geidam before they were defeated.
Information is still filtering in regarding Boko Haram, although some outlets – quoting local sources – are already treating them as an extension of the “Nigerian Taliban.” At the very least, the two groups share a tactic (attacking police stations), and an aim (establishing country-wide shari’a and an Islamic republic in Nigeria).
Speculating on the causes of these incidents, I’ll begin by pointing out the obvious: there’s a segment of Northern Muslims unhappy with the compromise that state-level (and, some argue, increasingly “nominal”) shari’a will coexist with a secular federal system. That segment seems to be a small and radicalized fringe, but one willing to periodically express itself through violence.
Islamist rebellions of this type also seem to have some connection with mass interreligious violence in Nigeria. Bauchi, the site of Boko Haram’s attack, witnessed Muslim-Christian riots in February of this year and in early 2008. Religious violence, with periodic lulls and surges, has plagued Nigeria since the late 1970s. Yet the mass riots, as Human Rights Watch and others have argued, sometimes act as proxy fights for other conflicts, such as political power struggles, economic conflicts between different ethnic communities, or hostilities between newcomers and established residents. Ideology likely plays a stronger role in these fights of radicals against the government, but perhaps some of those other factors come into play as well.
Regardless of cause, these attacks, like the mass riots, make Nigerians of all stripes nervous. Talk of an Islamic state makes Christians, especially in the North, fearful. An uprising in the North, even if quickly suppressed, will draw needed resources and attention away from addressing the crisis in the Niger Delta. Finally, the majority of mainstream Northern Muslims will likely be dismayed to see radicals claiming the mantle of Islam.
Hopefully the incident will spark dialogue, not further hatred. And hopefully it will not be followed by other incidents. After the winter of 2003-2004, I didn’t hear much about “Taliban”-style groups in Nigeria. Will Boko Haram retreat now, or will they strike again?
[UPDATE]: The answer to my question came more quickly than I had expected. Attacks have spread to several other areas, leaving around 150 dead. I’ll do my best to stay on the details as they come in.