While I had said I would not post again until January 3, I felt this weekend’s attacks in Nigeria warranted a response.
‘Boko Haram’, a highly de-centralized Islamic radical movement, has allegedly claimed responsibility for attacks on Christian churches in an Abuja suburb and elsewhere in the North and the Middle Belt over the Christmas weekend. Reports of incidents and casualties are incomplete. However, estimates of civilian casualties range up to seventy and there are reports that the security services also killed about sixty suspected members of Boko Haram in Yobe state.
While Boko Haram has murdered Christian clergy and attacked churches before, it has primarily targeted representatives of state and federal governments, such as police officers, soldiers, politicians, and even traditional Muslim leaders.
Boko Haram may be intent on showing Nigerians and the international community that it can make the country ungovernable for President Goodluck Jonathan’s predominately southern Christian administration in Abuja. Attacks on Christian churches on one of the two principal Christian holidays of the year drive that point home and ensured international press attention. For example, some American media paired the attacks with Pope Benedict XVI’s call for peace–thereby introducing Boko Haram to parts of the international community that hitherto had not been paying much attention.
Boko Haram may also seek to demonstrate that it can strike anywhere–and some Western media seem to draw that conclusion. In fact, the Christmas attacks did not take place in areas outside of Boko Haram’s usual theater of operations. Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for attacks in Abuja and Damaturu previously. Similar bombings happened on the Christmas holiday last year in Jos, which has been the center of local and religious and ethnic conflict for a decade, and whose Christian governor is widely unpopular among the state’s Muslim population. Notably, an alleged spokesman for Boko Haram cited revenge for killings of Muslims and the government’s refusal to protect Muslims to justify the bombing.
Boko Haram may seek to provoke retaliatory Christian killings of Muslims outside of the North, thereby promoting the fragmentation of the country. Fringe groups in the Niger Delta have already threatened to kill Northern Muslims living in that region, and the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), the mainstream Christian umbrella group, has said that Christians should “defend themselves.” There is anecdotal evidence that some Northern Muslims living in southern states have returned home out of fear.
Finally, the Christmas attacks may indicate that Boko Haram is increasingly identifying Christianity with the Jonathan government, and possibly with the hated police and security services. A White House spokesman has stated that the United States “pledges to assist” the Nigerian federal government in “bringing those responsible to justice.”
Such identification of the United States with the Jonathan administration may result in Boko Haram attacks on American targets. However, there are few of them to be found in those parts of Nigeria where Boko Haram has operated up to now.
What does Boko Haram want? As a diffuse movement, there is no charismatic leader, no ‘politburo’, and no manifesto. Boko Haram rhetoric is focused on the application off Islamic religious law and justice for the poor. But, it doubtlessly includes nihilistic and criminal elements as well. A common thread appears to be hatred for the secular government in Abuja, certain governors, and parts of the traditional Islamic establishment it sees as having sold out.
It is premature to see the Christmas attacks as more coordinated than those carried out by Boko Haram in the past. Nor do they necessarily indicate enhanced relations between Boko Haram and international jihadist movements, as some commentators are concluding. Boko Haram seems to be financing itself through bank robberies and is arming itself by thefts from government armories and purchases — there is no shortage of weapons on the market in Nigeria. So, it is not necessary to look for a “foreign hand” to account for Boko Haram’s current operations.
Online: Council on Foreign Relations