Jul 30th 2009
From The Economist print edition
An Islamist insurgency in the north comes on top of another in the Delta
VIOLENCE has often disfigured religion in Nigeria. Usually, it has been a matter of bloody confrontation between Muslims and Christians in the middle of the country, where the largely Muslim north rubs up against the mainly Christian south. This week, however, Nigeria experienced its most serious outbreak of another kind of religious violence, provoked by Islamic fundamentalists who take their inspiration from the Taliban of Afghanistan. At least 180 people were killed in five days of clashes between militants and the police.
The fighting started on July 26th in Bauchi state after the police arrested several suspected leaders of an Islamist sect called Boko Haram, a local Hausa term that means “education is prohibited”. In particular, the group is against Western education and influence. It wants to impose a pure Muslim caliphate on Nigeria. In retaliation for the arrest of their leaders, militants went on the rampage in several northern states, attacking the police with anything that came to hand, from machetes to bows and poison arrows.
The police fought back, killing, so they claimed, 39 militants in Bauchi. Fierce fighting took place in Maiduguri, capital of Borno state, where the sect has its headquarters. On July 28th the army was called in to shell the compound where the sect’s leader, Muhammad Yusuf, has been based. As well as killing scores of Boko Haram fighters, the police arrested hundreds of suspected members of the group.
The “Black Taliban”, as such groups are dubbed in Nigeria’s northern states, have carried out isolated attacks for several years. This time the violence has been more widespread and prolonged. Muslim sharia law was introduced in 12 northern states after general elections in 1999, but the states’ Muslim rulers have usually been cautious in applying it. This has prompted the militants to demand a more extreme form of Islamist rule and for sharia to be extended to the whole of Nigeria.
Nigeria’s federal government, along with Western intelligence agencies, has long worried that extremist groups in the north may link up with Islamist terrorist groups elsewhere in Africa, in particular with al-Qaeda in the Maghreb. This outfit grew out of the blood-soaked struggle by Islamists to overthrow Algeria’s government in the 1990s. Such connections raise the spectre of a concerted Islamist threat against Nigeria, a close ally of America and a large oil exporter. But the links have not been proved and little is known about groups such as Boko Haram.
On this occasion Nigeria’s president, Umaru Yar’Adua, acted swiftly. But it was the exception to his presidential rule. Now halfway through his four-year term, the former governor of the northern state of Katsina has achieved little. His administration is beset by indecision and drift.
This week’s violence in the north comes on top of unceasing violence in the southern Niger Delta region, where an insurgency by militants demanding a bigger share of the country’s oil wealth continues to disrupt oil exports. By some estimates, Nigeria now exports only half of what it should: Angola has taken over as sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest producer.
Despite floating various well-meaning plans to pacify the Delta, the government has failed to stop the region’s unrest. The fall in tax revenues, as a result of illegal bunkering and the sabotage of pipelines, means that Mr Yar’Adua has even less chance of tackling his country’s other problems, such as a chronic lack of electricity. The insurgency in the Delta has thrived on the back of dire poverty and high unemployment in what should be a relatively wealthy region, were it not so poorly governed. Some fear the Islamist militants in the north may profit from the same lack of opportunities, which saps the morale of young Nigerians and makes so many of them prey to extremists.