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Nigeria's Boko Haram a holy war? Maybe not entirely

Nigerian Roman Catholic Archbishop John Onaiyekan, on a visit to Kenya, said the Islamist Boko Haram insurgency is as rooted in bad governance as much as in its push for Islamic sharia law. 

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Most victims of attacks are Muslims

Boko Haram claims to be fighting in the interest of all Muslims. But of the 500 people killed in the first half of this year, through Boko Haram raids, suicide attacks, and commando-style assaults on government facilities, the vast majority of the victims have been Muslims.

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In his speech at the newly inaugurated bi-annual lecture of the African Council of Religious Leaders in Nairobi on May 16, Bishop Onaiyekan described the early days of the Boko Haram phenomenon, in which villagers in one of the northern states went on a rampage. The villagers called themselves “Talibans,” after the militant Islamist group in Afghanistan.

“At the time, we thought they did not know what they were talking about,” Onaiyekan said. “But looking back now, it is possible that they did indeed know about Talibans and perhaps had contacts with them.”

“It is coming out more clearly that Boko Haram have had links with the Islamic terrorist organizations like the Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and their counterparts in Somalia, the Al Shabab,” he noted. But it would never have had the power or the amount of local support it seems to enjoy if not for other, more fundamental issues, particularly local alienation over bad governance, he adds. Boko Haram’s ability to carry out attacks across northern Nigeria “has introduced a completely new dimension dimension in religious conflict in our nation, new in intensity and ideology,” he said.

The solution, Onaiyekan says, is for Africans to reach out across national borders and religious lines, compare notes, and insist that the rule of law is applied without discrimination on either ethnic or religious basis.

In Africa, some analysts have said that there is also a political dimension to the conflict. Just before the 2011 election, President Goodluck Jonathan ended an informal agreement within the ruling People’s Democratic Party to alternate presidential candidates between the Muslim north and the Christian south. When the Muslim president Umaru Yar’Adua died in May 2010, and his Christian vice president, Mr. Jonathan, took over, many northern politicians of his own party pushed for a new election, rather than allow a Christian to take on the remainder of Yar’Adua’s term.

Alhaji Adamu Sumaila, a PDP official in the Jonathan administration, put the blame on the opposition, however, saying recently, “opposition members are aiding the insurgency of Boko Haram in Nigeria because they lost power, which forced them to be aiding rebellion against the government.”

Kenyans see parallels

For Kenyans, there are clear parallels, not only in the ethnic battles that followed the 2007 elections, but also in the ethnic scapegoating of Somali Kenyans during the ongoing Kenyan incursion against the Islamist militia Al Shabab inside Somalia.

There is even a secession group in the Muslim-majority coastal region known as the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), which has threatened to use violence because of what is sees as neglect by the Kenyan government.  

It has since threatened to scuttle general elections expected to be held later this year or in 2013.

Sheikh Ibrahim Lithome, the secretary general of the Islamic Foundation of Kenya, uses an African proverb to warn against Kenyans getting complacent about the potential for violence at home.

“The piece of firewood in the storage should not laugh at one [piece of wood] that is burning on fire, because the next thing that will happen is that the piece of wood in storage will be picked up and put on the fire,” said Sheikh Lithome.

Kenyans may feel like the ethnic and religious violence they hear about in Nigeria could never happen at home in Kenya. “All of us know we are not safe from what is happening in Nigeria,” he said.

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