Nigeria braces for more extremist violence

Abuja, Nigeria - The assassination of a member of parliament, an attack on an army barracks and the recent bombing of the United Nations offices in Abuja show that Boko Haram, the Islamic extremist group, is growing in ambition and capability and threatening the country with terrorist violence almost daily.

Member of parliament Modu Bintube was shot dead at his home Sunday evening in Maiduguri, the capital of northeastern Borno state. Earlier Sunday an army barracks in neighboring Gombe was bombed and a gun battle followed in which a police sergeant and three suspected militants were killed.

Boko Haram's most brazen attack was the suicide bombing of the United Nations office building in the capital Abuja in August, which marked a significant escalation in the terrorist threat in Africa’s most populous nation.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has vowed to crack down on the violence. Jonathan has tried to deflect blame for the unrest away from the widening gulf between the largely Muslim north and mostly Christian south. However, a report this month urged the government to look closely at the domestic problems causing a devastating conflict in Africa’s largest oil exporter.

Boko Haram — which means “Western education is sinful” — began in Maiduguri, capital of the remote, northeastern state of Borno, close to the borders with Cameroon, Niger and Chad. The group rose to prominence in 2009 after sectarian violence killed more than 800 people, including the sect’s leader, Mohammed Yusuf, who was shot dead in police custody. Yusuf's alleged extra-judicial murder became the sect’s greatest recruiting tool and prompted widespread revenge killings.

Boko Haram says it is fighting for the wider application of Shariah law in Nigeria and has been blamed for hundreds of attacks in Borno, often aimed at police, churches and bars.

The recent attacks signal a significant escalation in the group’s scope and methods, expanding beyond their dusty northern home-base, which sits on the fringe of the Sahara desert. In June a bomb-laden car exploded outside the police headquarters in the nation’s capital, narrowly missing the chief of police. The attack on the U.N. headquarters in August was the first known suicide bombing in Nigeria, killing 23 people and injuring dozens more. The member of parliament assassinated this week was the most prominent Nigerian killed in the campaign.

The increase in Boko Haram's capabilities and sophistication is due to several factors, including the group's associations with other Al Qaeda-linked jihadist groups in Africa such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Al Shabaab in Somalia. Evidence suggests members of the sect have trained in Niger and in Somalia, said Nigerian intelligence officers.

“There are definitely some links between AQIM and Boko Haram, and it is clear that AQIM are keen to make them stronger,” said Peter Sharwood-Smith, country manager for risk consultants Drum Cussac.

But Boko Haram's origins were born from local issues. And now it is suspected that several northern politicians, smarting from the loss of power after losing the presidential seat to a southerner, have invested resources into the sect with the aim of destabilizing Jonathan’s government.

“The main driving forces behind the recent increase in Boko Haram activity are almost certainly Nigerian in origin rather than foreign,” said Sharwood-Smith. Private militias that were established, funded and used by politicians and then later discarded often were coerced into Boko Haram, and this has contributed to its increase in violence.

Jonathan has tried to downplay the religious and regional problems that have been feeding Boko Haram's campaign, and he has attempted to paper over the widening gap between the country’s north and south. However, a presidential committee set up to look into the turmoil in the northeast, said the government’s failure to keep promises to address the social problems in the north was critical in feeding the violence.

The government should “provide measures for economic empowerment of the teeming unemployed youths in the northeast zone,” urged Usman Galtimari, chairman of the committee when presenting the report.

Nigeria has a sharp economic contrast between the mainly Muslim north and the Christian south. Failed development in northern Nigeria has created a climate of desperation and has allowed extremists to exploit those who feel marginalized and disenfranchised.

The opaque nature of Boko Haram's structure, with its indefinable membership and unclear source of finance, means the government has struggled to propose a clear strategy to dismantle the group.

The government report proposed dialogue with the sect. But a recent attempt to broker peace talks ended in bloodshed when former President Olusegun Obasanjo visited the family of former Boko Haram leader Yusuf Mohammed. A day after talks, Yusuf's brother-in-law was murdered in what security officials believe was revenge for his interest in talks.

An increase in security has produced ambiguous results. A joint military taskforce has been accused of a heavy-handed and bellicose approach, pushing people further into the arms of the sect. Some Nigerians feel that the government is militarizing the problem, treating it as purely a security issue rather than one rooted in political and social grievances held in the north.

The solution is still murky. Observers say Jonathan must take decisive steps to restore public confidence by tightening security measures, finding the culprits responsible for the latest attack and tackling the underlying economic and social issues feeding the unrest.

“We must desperately overhaul our security apparatus … Government must perform the miracle of creating employment for our youths … Our nation would know no peace until the privileged ones begin to downgrade their own lifestyle to support the poor of our society,” wrote Dele Momodu in an editorial in one of Nigeria’s leading newspapers, This Day.

The bombing of the U.N. offices may only be the beginning. “We should expect more suicide attacks, as this is now becoming a standard modus operandi for the group, but it is difficult now to predict what their target might be,” said Sharwood-Smith.

Tighter security across the capital signals the anticipation of more deadly attacks. Streams of traffic are sucked into bottlenecks at entrances to large hotels and shopping complexes, as each car is checked for bombs.

“Bush bars,” open-air drinking spots that used to teem with people, are avoided. Large masts with security cameras have been erected in central districts to record activities as police checkpoints stop and check cars at night.

Many Nigerians are bracing themselves for more attacks. Cement barriers have been erected in front of embassies, international schools and compounds to try to prevent a potential car bomber.

For the inhabitants of Abuja, the concern is not if Boko Haram will strike again, but when.