In Northern Nigeria, the past few days have seen two attacks on Christian gatherings and an attack on a police convoy. The attacks on Christians took place on Sunday in Kano, where assailants shot and bombed worshipers at the university church, killing some twenty people, and in Maiduguri, where gunmen killed at least four church attendees. Yesterday, a bomb attack on a police convoy in Jalingo, Taraba State (map) killed at least eleven officers. At the time of writing, no group has claimed responsibility for these attacks, but the rebel group Boko Haram is the main suspect in each incident.
Last week, after Boko Haram’s attacks on newspaper offices in Abuja and Kaduna, I wrote that while the group’s targets were becoming more diverse, the state remained its primary target. Commenter Chavuka took issue with that, writing, “Boko Haram has made it clear that ‘all Christians living in Northern Nigeria’ are THE primary target.” His argument is a strong one, though I would stand by my original statement. Certainly the attacks on churches this Sunday add to a trend in semi-systematic, anti-Christian violence in Northern Nigeria. I would say that perhaps debating Boko Haram’s “primary target” will not get us very far, and indeed that we do not need to view it as an either/or question – as the attacks of Sunday and Monday show, both Christians and the security forces are major targets. Perhaps most accurate would be to say that several overlapping campaigns of violence are taking place simultaneously. Boko Haram – or a constellation of actors both within and outside of the movement – are going after different kinds of targets.
With regard to anti-Christian violence in particular, one fear I have is that local groups will take advantage of (or are already taking advantage of) the ongoing violence to strike out against their enemies. This is possible both in the case of Muslims who target Christians and Christians who commit reprisals against Muslims. The situation, in other words, has the potential to escalate beyond just the violence committed by Boko Haram itself. If local struggles get collapsed into narratives of nationwide religious war, and opportunists seize on community-level fears to mobilize local grievances, the results could be very ugly. In that vein it will be important to see whether Boko Haram ultimately claims responsibility for the incidents on Sunday; unclaimed incidents could be the work of other actors.
The possibility of generalized interreligious conflict is especially acute as Boko Haram’s attacks increase in the Middle Belt, an area with a complex ethnic and religious makeup and, in some parts, histories of intercommunal violence between Muslims and Christians. Although the attack in Jalingo targeted police and not Christians per se, it is worth noting that Jalingo represents one of the points furthest south that Boko Haram has yet struck. Boko Haram’s increasing presence in Adamawa, another Middle Belt state, is another worrying sign. The more attacks that Boko Haram conducts in the Middle Belt, the greater the potential for generalized interreligious tension there.
In other Boko Haram news, documents found at Osama bin Laden’s house in Pakistan reportedly provide evidence of some level of communication between the rebels in Nigeria and the deceased jihadist.