Nigeria: Boko Haram and a Web of Accusations in Borno State

Voices in and outside Nigeria frequently accuse Northern Nigerian political elites of supporting the violent Muslim sect Boko Haram from behind the scenes. President Goodluck Jonathan himself said in January that sect members had infiltrated every branch of the government. Other observers have voiced skepticism at “conspiracy theories.”

On October 18, Nigerian soldiers reportedly arrested a man named Shuaibu Mohammed Bama, said to be a Boko Haram commander, at the house of a senator in Maiduguri, Borno State. The arrest reinforces concerns about the possible connections of Borno State politicians to Boko Haram.

After the arrest was announced on October 20, the senator’s name emerged as Ahmed Zanna, a member of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). The PDP has ruled Nigeria since the restoration of civilian democracy in 1999, and President Goodluck Jonathan is a member. The PDP does not rule Borno State, whose three governors since 1999 (current Governor Kashim Shettima, former Governor Ali Modu Sheriff, and the late Governor Mala Kachalla) have all been members of the All Nigeria People’s Party (ANPP). At the national level, the ANPP functions as a (primarily Northern) opposition party.

Many facts concerning Zanna’s role in the case of Shuaibu Bama are in dispute. In an interview with the BBC Hausa service, translated here, Zanna identified Shuaibu Bama as his nephew but said that no Boko Haram commander was arrested in his house.

Zanna characterizes his nephew in the following way:

Mr. Zanna confirmed that the Boko Haram suspect is his “sister’s son”, who he had long kept at arms length.

“He beats up my children; he abuses my friends. He came to my house, so I sent him away. That was about a year ago. And for whatever reason I don’t know, he came to my house last week and I said he should leave the house,” Mr Zanna said of Mr. Bama’s behavior.

“Sometime ago, he even threatened to kill his mother. So, the mother was not even feeling comfortable living with him. And he narrated that to me. That is why I also do not want him to be near me.

“I don’t know him to be a Boko Haram member. Never, never, I do not know him to be a member of Boko Haram.”

Elsewhere Zanna, who has been to Abuja for questioning, has called the incident a “frame up,” a plot inspired to silence his criticisms of military operations in the Northeast. Zanna further stated that the suspect was actually arrested in the house of former Governor Sheriff. Zanna, who defeated Sheriff in the 2011 senatorial race, has said that the current investigation against him reveals Sheriff’s ambitions to destroy him and claim the senate seat. Zanna’s charges echo accusations made in 2011 by the Borno State branch of the PDP that Sheriff was an early supporter of Boko Haram.

Sheriff has responded by denying the charge and accusing Zanna of seeking to displace blame and of facilitating terrorist training for Nigerians abroad.

This web of accusations and counter-accusations will have to be sorted out by the Nigerian government’s investigators. Whatever comes of that, the reports and statements that have emerged so far seem likely to elevate the public’s cynicism and alarm about the political class. One could argue for the innocence of either politician, but many may also view the incident as a sign that Borno State politicians as a group are willing to play dangerous games with Boko Haram as they jockey for position.