Four states in northern Nigeria remain under a massive curfew imposed by police and military forces following three days of deadly clashes with a radical Muslim sect.
The struggles are particularly intense in Borno State’s capital city of Maiduguri, where the government is trying to seize the home of the sect leader. Churches there and at least one police station have been set on fire.
The violence began Sunday in Bauchi State and has spread into Yobe, Kano, and Borno. Latest estimates in the four jurisdictions put the death toll at around 150. Professor Sadiq Abubakar teaches political science at Ahmadu Bello University in the northern town of Zaria. From the capital Abuja, he explains that public disaffection with corruption, unemployment, and an uneven distribution of wealth has made Nigerians pay attention, even though very few condone the violence.
“If you talk to people in the street, while they condemn the violence and also the newspapers have reported them saying that they are opposed to western education, people don’t support that. But at the same time, the people say, ‘well, we understand why they should go and do that' because when we have educated new graduates roaming about the streets – no jobs, no direction whatsoever, we are not surprised that this kind of thing is happening in Nigeria,” said Abubakar.
The Boko Haram group condemns democracy and western culture and claims it supports the imposition of strict Islamic Sharia law across all of northern Nigeria. Beyond that, Professor Abubakar says its leader has shifted tactics away from assaulting innocent residents and focused on targeting law enforcement authorities and their police stations in a bid to arouse public debate.
“They themselves have been very clever. In the past, they would attack people around them. But this time they are not doing that. They are attacking the police, which is a symbol of oppression. But that is my understanding of it. They attacked the police in Bauchi. They attacked the police station in Maiduguri. They did that, and so they are trying to separate and divide the police state institutions from the public,” he observed.
Nigerian police admit they don’t really know who is behind the insurgents, who are reported to be mostly young and fanatically opposed to the government. Professor Abubakar suggests that some Nigerians might actually sympathize with a generationally motivated challenge of the current government by the leader of the group and his young followers, who are speaking up in public interviews against the injustices of the society.
“If certainly it is opposed to the kind of democracy operating in Nigeria, many people will agree with him (the insurgents’ leader). Even if the action is abominable, certainly, there is no democracy. Elections have been rigged, left, right, and center. If he’s opposed to the system of education, I am a teacher. I know there are many things wrong with it. I heard over the radio people in the press saying that they’re opposed to western education. But the interview indicated he is opposed to people going to school. And so they call it Boko Haram (‘Education is a Sin’ in the Hausa language),” noted Abubakar.
As Professor Abubakar sees it, many unsettling factors in Nigerian life have predisposed the young radicals to turn to violence.
“Unemployment, it is very high. Go into any city and see the number of graduates from secondary schools and universities roaming around, literally doing nothing and no job is forthcoming. And secondly, there is too much concentration of wealth in few hands in this country. And they actually show it by the type of cars they drive, the houses they build, and the ostentation in the midst of poverty. There’s no leadership, especially in those areas where the violence occurred,” he said.
One-third of Nigeria’s 36 states have already adopted Sharia in the past decade, so Abubakar suspects that Boko Haram’s pleas for wider adoption of the code represent no more than a rallying cry for Islamic justice and what the group considers a more ethically driven value system.
With the coordinated attacks spanning across several state borders, federal authorities are assuming jurisdictional control of the situation, which the Ahmadu Bello scholar says will ultimately lead to government authorities putting down the insurrection.
“I gather that there is going to be a police military operation today. Even the president (Umaru Yar’Adua) said it on national television a while ago that there is going to be a coordinated action to dislodge them and the state will not condone this kind of activity wherever it occurs,” he said.
The city of Jos in Plateau State straddles the border between heavily concentrated Muslim communities to the north and mainly Christian areas to the south. Last November,Jos experienced a wave of ethnic violence that claimed the lives of hundreds of people.
Sadiq Abubakar is quick to point out that the current wave of attacks in the north are not sectarian violence. However, if the public outcry becomes shrill, as with the aftermath of the Jos flare-up, both federal and state governments may consider adding to Nigerians’ time-honored practice of forming investigative commissions to probe the root causes for the northern Nigeria upsurge.