Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Spiral of revenge claims 200 victims in Nigeria

Financial Times
23 January 2012

By Xan Rice in Lagos and James Blitz in London

The extent of the Islamist insurgency gripping Nigeria became clear on Sunday when it emerged that close to 200 people, many of them police offers, were killed in co-ordinated attacks on Kano, the second-biggest city, on Friday.

Eyewitnesses said hundreds of Boko Haram operatives were involved in the raids on eight police, intelligence and government targets that lasted several hours. A doctor in the ancient city in northern Nigeria told Reuters that 178 deaths had been recorded at the two main hospitals, with the toll expected to rise.

The size and sophistication of the attacks, which were the deadliest since the Boko Haram insurgency began in earnest last year, underlines fears that the conflict is spiralling out of control.

Besides attacking the security forces, the Islamist militants have struck Christian churches recently, raising tensions among Nigeria’s 160m people, who are roughly split between the two faiths. On Sunday, two churches in the northern city of Bauchi were reported to have been bombed by unknown perpetrators.

Goodluck Jonathan, the president, who visited the bomb sites on Sunday, said this month that the Boko Haram rebellion was a greater threat to Nigeria than the Biafran civil war in the late 1960s. He described the Kano attacks as “unprecedented evil” and vowed that “the terrorists can’t win Nigeria”.

More violence appears inevitable. Shehu Sani, a civil society activist who met relatives of Boko Haram members during a peace effort late last year, said the movement’s followers have vowed to keep fighting until all their colleagues are released from custody, with compensation paid for all deaths and damage to property.

“They will attack again,” he told the Financial Times recently. “It’s now a war that’s going on.”

The government’s response has been criticised for failing to prevent the violence. Its heavy-handed counterinsurgency has been blamed for creating sympathy for the insurgents in north-east Nigeria and Mr Jonathan’s administration has been strongly criticised for intelligence failures that have allowed the militants to kill hundreds of people since mid-2011.

Most of the attacks occurred in north-east Nigeria, but the group has been able to hit distant major cities too. In the worst incidents, a suicide bomber detonated a car bomb at a UN building in the capital Abuja, killing at least 24 people. On Christmas day, co-ordinated attacks killed dozens of people, including 37 at a church near Abuja.

Targeting international institutions and Christians marks a departure from the days of Yusuf’s leadership. His successor, Abubakar Shekau, who was one of Yusuf’s deputies, appeared in a YouTube video earlier this month justifying attacks on Christians.

However, experts believe the leadership is loose, with varied motivations. Its ability to operate suggests a level of support or acquiescence among a segment of northern Nigerians who feel increasingly alienated – politically and economically – from the rest of the country.

“Boko Haram is not an organisation with a politburo and a manifesto,” said John Campbell, a former US ambassador to Nigeria and an analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s a movement, a way of thinking, and has many nodules. That makes it terribly hard to deal with.”

The Kano attacks are certain to intensify concerns among US and European intelligence agencies about whether Boko Haram might pose a threat to western targets either inside or outside Nigeria. “Boko has been whacked by the Nigerian authorities in the past but they have come back and there is a distinct resurgence,” a senior British official said recently.

The official said one of the main aims of western intelligence was to ensure that Boko Haram does not link up with the main jihadist group in the region, al-Qaeda in the Maghreb.

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