Boko Haram, the militant Muslim sect that has become Nigeria’s greatest security challenge, is affecting the country not only through its direct activities but also through the fear that is taking hold even well outside of Boko Haram’s (expanding, but still limited) zone of operations. Particularly since the bombing at the police headquarters in Abuja on June 16, authorities and citizens in Southern Nigeria have begun to take precautions against possible Boko Haram attacks. It is axiomatic that terrorist groups seek to terrify, but in Boko Haram’s case the ability to project fear throughout Nigeria is making them a truly national problem there.
Although Boko Haram has attacked Abuja, located near the center of the country, as well as Kaduna, located in the center North, and has claimed attacks in Jos, which sits in the eastern part of Nigeria’s Middle Belt, the center of the group’s operations remains the far Northeast, particularly the city of Maiduguri (see a map of Nigeria here).
That’s why it’s striking that authorities in Lagos are worried about attacks by Boko Haram. I do not dismiss the concerns of citizens and leaders in Lagos – the Abuja attacked showed that Boko Haram had greater reach than many observers previously thought. But Lagos is about as far as one could travel from Maiduguri and still be in Nigeria.
The fear of Boko Haram attacks is now spreading south to Lagos, following a text message purportedly sent by the group warning people not to take government buses because they are a target.
The managing director of LAGBUS [a city bus service], Yemi Odubela, told the News Agency of Nigeria that the firm is aware of the threat and is asking passengers to remain vigilant and cooperate with spot checks of their bags.
Another aspect of the climate of fear is the movement of persons out of the Northeast:
States are evacuating their citizens from troubled Maiduguri, the Borno State capital that has been seized by Boko Haram, the anti-western education Islamic sect.
Benue, Kano, Plateau, Kwara and Kaduna states yesterday sent buses to bring home their people.
The National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) is planning to redeploy members who feel unsafe.
The states named are located in the North and in the Middle Belt, but a flow of non-native residents out of the Northeast takes place amid murmurings among some Southern groups concerning possible reprisal killings against Northerners who live in the South. As Boko Haram broadens its targets to include not just politicians, policemen, and rival religious leaders, but also cultural sites that include churches, there is a mounting possibility that some Southern Christians will begin to see the violence through the lens of religious war – as, of course, Boko Haram does. Nigeria has seen episodes of reprisal killings before, particularly during the civil war of 1967-1970, and it is possible that fear could lead a few Southerners to lash out at the nearest targets. That violence could trigger larger Northern-Southern confrontations – not anything close to a full civil war, in my view, but a significant wave of intercommunal violence.
The fear in the South and around the country, then, has two edges. On the one hand taking precautions could help prevent attacks. On the other hand, rising tensions could lead to violence, even between people who have nothing to do with Boko Haram.