Nigerian authorities and journalists say that Boko Haram, an Islamic sect that attracted major attention for its attack on Nigerian police last summer, is responsible for a recent spate of violent acts. The first of these was a jailbreak in which hundreds of prisoners, including some members of the sect, escaped. Here is a partial list of other crimes, all of which seem to have taken place in Bauchi and Borno States in northeastern Nigeria:
- On Thursday, October 7th, in two separate incidents, gunmen on motorcycles killed Awana Ngala yesterday, a vice chairman of the All Nigeria People’s Party, and attacked the residence of the speaker of the state legislature, Goni Ali Modu, where they killed a security guard.
- On Friday, October 8th, Boko Haram prisoners may have participated in a prison riot.
- On Saturday, October 9th, “Two gunmen on a motorcycle shot dead [Islamic cleric] Bashir Kashara at his house in the heart of Maiduguri city…He was killed along with one of his students.”
- On Monday, October 11th, suspected members of Boko Haram attacked a Maiduguri police station with homemade bombs and set it on fire, wounding three officers.
Assuming members of Boko Haram committed the murders, all of these acts bespeak both political and religious motivations. Kashara’s death seems to have stemmed from his religious opposition to Boko Haram, and more specifically from his “taking part in a radio discussion in which he condemned” the group. If Boko Haram is sending a signal, my reading is that they are trying not only to remove religious opponents, but to control the conversation in the media. Killing leaders in the ANPP is an even more explicitly political move. The ANPP is the major opposition party in Northern Nigeria and especially in the northeast. Likely they represent the northeastern establishment in the eyes of Boko Haram, and that’s why Boko Haram targets them. Other interpretations of the movement’s anti-ANPP streak are possible, though, including the interpretation that Boko Haram wants to sow chaos in advance of the presidential elections or the interpretation that they are conducting a campaign of revenge against specific leaders they feel have wronged them. As for attacking the police station, that shows the same willingness for open battle with security forces that Boko Haram displayed last summer.
Where does this go from here? In general I dislike saying that X, Y, or Z trend has “emboldened” a certain group, but that phrasing fits in this case: authorities suppressed Boko Haram last summer, but this fall they are acting with confidence and since the September jailbreak they have escaped punishment. An emboldened Boko Haram could substantially disrupt the northeast in the coming months – though their influence has limits outside of Borno and Bauchi States. Security is tight in Maiduguri and in other northeastern areas, but I would not be surprised to see the state and federal authorities mount another major crackdown on Boko Haram.
Another issue concerns Boko Haram’s leadership. The death last summer of Mohammed Yusuf, their leader at the time, wounded but did not cripple the group. Who leads them now? And, more importantly, are they able to act without a centralized leadership? A pattern of killings indicates some degree of organization, but so far no one has emerged to claim Yusuf’s mantle publicly. It will be interesting to see what comes to light about how they have regrouped since last summer.