Nigeria: Amid Crackdown on Boko Haram, Civilian Casualties Point to Problems

In late September, I wrote about Nigerian authorities’ redoubled efforts to dismantle the Boko Haram rebel sect by force. Mass raids have occurred in Northeastern states like Yobe and Adamawa, killing dozens of Boko Haram fighters as well as several leaders. This weekend, another major battle occurred between soldiers and sect members in Damaturu, Yobe State:

About 30 suspected members of the militant Islamist group Boko Haram have died in a gun battle with troops in north-east Nigeria, the military says.

Army spokesman Lt Eli Lazarus said the battle in Damaturu lasted several hours and 10 arrests were also made.

He said the militants killed included a senior commander known as one-eyed Bakaka.

[...]

Nigeria’s military has recently reported major success in its campaign against Islamist militants, who have often targeted Damaturu, in Yobe state.

However, human rights groups say army operations in northern Nigeria have also left many civilians dead and they complain that arrests are often indiscriminate.

The last sentence is key, because a high civilian casualty rate could bring political backlash even if the crackdowns are successful from a military standpoint.

An incident yesterday in Maiduguri, Borno State, which has historically been the epicenter of Boko Haram, spotlights the tragedy of civilian casualties. Soldiers, this time on the defensive, seem to have lost control in reaction to a bombing:

Nigerian troops have opened fire and burned buildings in the north-eastern city of Maiduguri, reportedly killing 30 civilians.

The shootings came after a bomb blast targeting the army had injured two soldiers.

[...]

“Initially, soldiers that came after the explosion harassed residents, whipping them,” one person told AFP news agency.

“But later they went on a shooting spree and started setting homes and shops on fire.”

In an indication of the incident’s seriousness, Borno State’s deputy governor, Alhaji Zannah Mustapha, “later visited the area, urging the people to be calm, just as he assured that normalcy would be restored by the security agencies.”

The kind of political backlash I am describing when I talk about civilian casualties does not center on politics in the sense of elections, campaigns, and leaders. It has to do with the micro-politics of ordinary people’s everyday relations with authority, especially authority personified as soldiers and police officers. Trust in the security forces is notoriously low in Nigeria generally and in the Northeast particularly. The Northeast has seen high-casualty crackdowns before, notably in 2009 during Boko Haram’s mass uprising. In a sense, what is important about the dynamic at work in Maiduguri yesterday is not that it is new but that it is recurring, that violence by security forces against civilians maintains an atmosphere in which many civilians will be reluctant to share information with authorities or cooperate with them beyond the basics necessary for self-preservation. At worst, of course, brutality by the security forces could drive some recruits toward Boko Haram. But even without that possibility, the atmosphere of mistrust, fear, and tension – which clearly affects the soldiers themselves, as well as civilians – undermines efforts to dismantle Boko Haram.

Nigeria: Major Crackdown on Boko Haram in Yobe and Adamawa States

Mosque, Damaturu

Mosque in Damaturu, by Jeremy Weate

Last week, Nigerian security forces in Kano and Maiduguri killed at least four suspected high-ranking members of the Boko Haram sect and arrested two others. That tally includes the group’s infamous spokesman Abu Qaqa, who has been reported dead before. This week, security forces have mounted crackdowns on Boko Haram in Yobe and Adamawa States. While clashes between security forces and sect members are frequent, these crackdowns have been significant for their scale.
AFP on the crackdown in Yobe:

“The Joint Task Force has succeeded in killing 35 Boko Haram terrorists in shootouts between Sunday evening through Monday,” said Lieutenant Lazarus Eli, a military spokesman in Yobe state, of which Damaturu is the capital.

A round-the-clock curfew was imposed in the city late Saturday, ahead of the operation that also led to the arrest of 60 suspected Boko Haram members.

The curfew has been relaxed and residents are now allowed out of their homes from 7:00 am to 10:00 pm (0600 GMT to 2100), Eli said. The ban on movements in Yobe’s economic capital of Potiskum has also been eased.

Military forces went door-to-door through three Damaturu neighbourhoods beginning late Sunday and engaged militants in “a fierce exchange of gunfire” through to the early hours of Monday morning, the spokesman added in a statement.

Two soldiers were injured in the fighting.

[...]

A list of weapons that Eli said were recovered from Boko Haram hideouts included dozens of guns, explosive devices and hundreds of rounds of ammunition as well 32 arrows and two swords, among other items.

PM News on the crackdown in Mubi, Adamawa:

“In the three-day operation, the town was placed under 24-hour curfew, which enabled soldiers to comb the nooks and corners,” said Lieutenant Saleh Mohammed Buba, military spokesman in Adamawa.
“A total of 156 suspects were rounded up in raids of suspected (Boko Haram) hideouts. A sect commander known as Abubakar Yola who went by the alias Abu Jihad was shot dead in a shootout while trying to flee,” he added.
The detained suspected gunmen would soon be produced in court, Buba said.
[...]
The spokesman said about 300 explosive devices were discovered in what he described as an armory used by the sect, where about two dozen AK-47 guns were also being stored.

These crackdowns follow Boko Haram’s attacks on cell phone towers earlier this month. A suicide bombing at a church in Bauchi State on Sunday is believed to be the group’s work.

The crackdowns, along with the arrests and shootings of sect commanders, certainly put pressure on Boko Haram. Their success in disrupting the group’s activities will have to be judged over time, though. For one thing, militant groups and terrorist movements are often able to replace slain commanders with relative ease – the headline “Al Qaeda No. 3 Killed” has been written so many times that it has become a joke in some quarters. Second, the massive crackdown on Boko Haram in 2009 did succeed in driving Boko Haram underground for months, but it also seems to have fueled the group’s grievances against the state, especially security forces.

Force will undoubtedly be part of the state’s response to Boko Haram. What matters is how force gets used. To the extent that security forces can target known sect members while avoiding harming and harassing civilians, and can pair forceful tactics with sophisticated strategies for answering the political challenge the sect poses, the crackdowns may help resolve the problem of Boko Haram. If not, then crackdowns risk becoming just another element of a cycle of violence.

Nigeria: Kaduna Bombings and Their Aftermath

On Sunday, a church was bombed in the city of Kaduna, Northern Nigeria, and two others were bombed in Zaria (another city in Kaduna State). The rebel group Boko Haram, which has struck Kaduna several times before, claimed responsibility for the attacks. Bombings followed on Monday in the city of Damaturu, Yobe State. View a map of Nigeria here.

The bombing in Kaduna has activated a broader conflict in the city. On Sunday, “as news of the church attack filtered through the city…young Christians took to the streets in violent protest. An AP reporter saw billows of smoke over a mosque in a predominantly Christian part of the city. People had mounted illegal roadblocks and were seen harassing motorists.” Today, “Muslims took to the streets…firing AK-47s, burning tires and destroying at least one church.” Another bomb went off in a market in Kaduna. Authorities have placed both Kaduna and Damaturu under curfew. The violence has disrupted business, academic, and other activity in Kaduna.

Kaduna has seen periodic interreligious violence over the course of the last decade (further back, there have been clashes in Kaduna State for decades, such as an infamous episode in the town of Kafanchan in 1987). Riots occurred in Kaduna, along with other major Northern cities, in 2011 after the election of President Goodluck Jonathan. This week’s violence, in other words, could awaken memories of past conflicts and grievances.

I have seen several estimates of the dead in Kaduna, ranging from around twenty in the blasts to over sixty for all victims.

Three immediate implications of the attacks are:

  1. Heightened fears of reprisal killings elsewhere. For example, Muslims in Onitsha, Anambra State, in the Southeast, have reportedly sought police protection. These fears are not new – some Christian leaders’ rhetoric has hinted at the possibility of reprisal killings over Boko Haram’s violence before – but the violence in Kaduna represents one of the most serious incidents in which an attack by Boko Haram has immediately sparked interreligious clashes.* Hopefully the calls from various Muslim and Christian organizations for youth to avoid violence will resonate.
  2. Further loss of faith in the authorities among ordinary people. Much of the reprisal violence in Kaduna originated in protests by Christians and Muslims, protests that partly voiced anger at the government over its failure to protect them. The more people feel they are on their own, the greater their temptation to take up weapons.
  3. The aftermath of the bombings is an apparent benefit to Boko Haram, if one of their aims is greater chaos. Reuters writes, “The church bombings seem calculated to trigger wider sectarian strife. Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, has said, in al Qaeda-style Internet videos, that the attacks on Christians were revenge for the killing of Muslims.” Boko Haram also benefits if the point above holds, namely if people continue to lose faith in government.

The situation in Kaduna (as well as in Damaturu and elsewhere) continues to evolve. I recommend following the BBC’s Will Ross for updates.

*Jos, a site of recurring Muslim-Christian clashes, is perhaps another place where Boko Haram attacks have fed interreligious violence, though the drivers of violence in that city have much to do with local history, law, and politics. Nevertheless, Jos appears to be one of the movement’s targets: Boko Haram claimed responsibility for bombings in Jos on Sunday June 10.