Boko Haram, the Islamic sect that clashed with Nigerian police and soldiers in Maiduguri last summer, is the prime suspect in a string of recent assassinations in northeastern Nigeria. As killings continue, Nigerian authorities are responding in force. Boko Haram is once again a major problem for Nigeria.
The assassinations in Maiduguri and other parts of the northeast have typically involved teams of gunmen on motorcycles, and yesterday another such incident occurred: a policeman died in Maiduguri in a drive-by shooting. The attack demonstrated some of the limits of police control in a city that had already been locked down:
The attack occurred despite military patrols in the city and a nighttime ban on motorbikes, and [police spokesman Abdullahi] Lawan said it appeared the gunmen had been tracking the officer for some time.
Authorities deployed troops last week in Maiduguri, the centre of the uprising, after earlier attacks blamed on Boko Haram.
Borno state, where Maiduguri is located, has also replaced its police commissioner, while the army chief of staff visited this week and said training was under way to prepare a joint military, police and air force team.
A military patrol labelled Operation Mesa, or python in the local Hausa language, has been launched and troops have deployed throughout Maiduguri and man checkpoints.
Ongoing escalation in the authorities’ response demonstrates how seriously they are taking the problem. Deployments have not only occurred on the ground. In the efforts to halt the killings and secure the city, the Nigerian air force has contributed two attack helicopters. Special riot police are also present.
The pattern of killings not only shows Boko Haram’s strength, but also shows that the group has become more sophisticated and patient. Last summer they were hurling themselves at police stations in attacks that were brutal, but ultimately futile. Now they are using guerrilla tactics, bombs, and medium-term strategies for disrupting and intimidating their opponents. They are also attracting more attention through their use of media, silencing critics and taking to the airwaves to make demands and broadcast their message.
Boko Haram’s new-found sophistication is evoking a range of responses inside Nigeria. Some see conspiracies afoot: one commentator wonders whether the group has found powerful backers who see an opportunity, in Boko Haram’s religious agenda, to disrupt the 2011 presidential elections. Some believe authorities must find a political solution: the Da’wah Co-ordination Council Of Nigeria, a national umbrella organization for Islamic groups, is urging federal and state governments to talk to Boko Haram’s leadership. Finally, others, including residents of Maiduguri, say that Boko Haram’s success, such as it is, stems from the Nigerian government’s failure to address economic and social crises – and from the way authorities handled the uprising last summer, which left some bitter feelings behind in and outside of Boko Haram.
The common thread in much of this commentary is that Boko Haram is challenging the Nigerian government’s authority in a serious way – challenging its “monopoly of the legitimate use of violence,” as Max Weber might say. I believe that the Nigerian government understands this well. If the forces they are putting into the northeast do not stop Boko Haram, then I expect they will put in more until the violence does stop. The question for me is how the Nigerian government will act in the long term to dismantle Boko Haram. Last summer’s crackdown neutralized Boko Haram for a year, but not forever. To truly defeat Boko Haram, the government will need to identify and address the root causes of its existence.
CODA: In my last post about Boko Haram we were discussing the question of who leads the movement now. AFP writes, “Its leader, Mohammed Yusuf, was captured alive and then killed by police [in July 2009], who said he was trying to escape. His deputy, Abubakar Shekau, is believed by some to have since taken over as leader.” That was the name commenter Mr. Orange floated in our earlier discussion. Could well be that Shekau is now top dog, or one of several top dogs.