Attack in Nigeria underscores strength of Islamist militant group

A deadly and well-coordinated attack by Boko Haram on a military compound and prison in northern Nigeria this week follows 'unprecedented' April attack that killed some 200 people.

By , Staff writer

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    Soldiers enter the gate of Bama Prison, Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria May 7. Suspected members of Boko Haram armed with machine guns laid siege on the northeastern town of Bama on Tuesday, killing dozens and freeing more than 100 prisoners.
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Members of the Boko Haram militant group allegedly stormed a military compound and prison in northeastern Nigeria this week, killing dozens and freeing more than 100 prisoners. The coordinated attack is the latest in a series of violent assaults that have taken place since war broke out in 2009 between the extremist Islamist group and the Nigerian military, and observers say neither side shows sign of deescalating.  

"Heavily armed Boko Haram terrorists" launched the attack, which killed prison guards, policemen, soldiers, and civilians, according to Musa Sagir, the military spokesman in Maiduguri. According to Agence France-Presse, the militants were reportedly wearing military uniforms during the attack.

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This week’s violence follows closely on the heels of what Human Rights Watch called an “unprecedented” attack in April in the town of Baga. Some 200 people were estimated killed and thousands of homes were destroyed.

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, is majority Christian in the south and Muslim in the north. The militants' name, Boko Haram, translates literally as “Western education is a sin,” and according to The Christian Science Monitor, there are other divides between north and south Nigeria that may play a role in Boko Haram’s staying power.

It’s estimated that 70 percent of Nigerians live on less than $1.25 a day, but poverty is more prevalent up north (far from Nigeria’s oil fields and agricultural areas). Some 75 percent of northerners live in poverty, compared with 27 percent of southerners. The great disparity between haves and have-nots, between north and south, appears to be one major draw for recruitment….

[T]he International Institute for Strategic Studies said in a recent report that “the extent of the violence (since 2009) showed that Boko Haram was capable of mobilizing thousands of people and was better trained and armed than government forces had thought.”

The group has said its goal is to create an Islamic state in the country’s north.

Nigeria has suffered close to 4,000 fighting-related deaths – perpetrated by both Boko Haram and the military – since 2009, reports The New York Times. A recent report by the Times notes that despite the brutal attacks said to be carried out by the militant group, on any given day, scores of bodies of suspected Boko Haram members are brought into the military hospital.

The corpses were those of young men arrested in neighborhood sweeps by the military and taken to a barracks nearby. Accused, often on flimsy or no evidence, of being members or supporters of Boko Haram … the detainees are beaten, starved, shot and even suffocated to death, say the officials, employees and witnesses….

The military’s harsh tactics, which it flatly denies, have reduced militant attacks in this insurgent stronghold, but at huge cost and with likely repercussions, officials and rights advocates contend.

No one doubts that Boko Haram, which has claimed responsibility for assassinations and bombings that have killed officials and civilians alike, is thoroughly enmeshed in the local populace, making the job of extricating the group extremely difficult. But as with other abuses, the bodies piling up at the morgue — where it is often impossible to distinguish combatants from the innocent — have turned many residents against the military, driving some toward the insurgency, officials say.

In late April, President Goodluck Jonathan set up a committee to explore the ideas of amnesty for the insurgents and discuss compensation for victims of Boko Haram violence, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

“[A]ll Nigerians are expecting this Committee to perform magic and I pray that Allah should give you the wisdom to do so because without peace we cannot develop,” President Jonathan said, referring to the Presidential Committee on Dialogue and Peaceful Resolution of Security Challenges in the North.

Not all Nigerians are hopeful the “magic” will be delivered. In an opinion piece published on AllAfrica.com noted:

Those who clamoured for [amnesty] genuinely believe amnesty will dam the flood of security challenges in northern Nigeria….

[But] there are many Nigerians who believe that this impending amnesty is a repetition of an error; an action that may, in the immediate future and in the long run, prove to be harmful to the country! Amnesty is a double-edged sword of a sort; it is as much a tonic as it is an elixir!

John Campbell from CFR notes, however, that “even if the prospects for success are low, as defined by the modalities, the Committee is an important step forward.

"It is a first step toward addressing the insurgency in the North by political means, rather than with a hammer. It also may create space for more political and civil society engagement in peacebuilding in the North. Jonathan even urged the Committee to make suggestions as to how the “underlying causes” of the insurgency could be addressed to prevent similar outbreaks in the future."

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