Sunday, March 9, 2014

Boko Haram is fighting (and winning)

Nigeria is set to be the king of Africa (over-taking South Africa) but it is also in deep trouble. Boko Haram has gained enough strength whereby security forces are not able to keep up. A full scale war is raging and 1300 people are dead in 2 months. This misery is only exceeded by the hell fires burning in Syria. All in all a good run for Al Qaeda in its myriad forms.  

It bears repeating: if all these battles join up into a world war of sorts, it will be a royal mess with all big powers (including China) on one side of the fence. The islamic communities in the border regions will likely be devastated (people will not care much about what goes on in the hinter lands).


Matazu, 29, survived the double bomb blast earlier this month in Maiduguri, north-east Nigeria, that killed about 45 people and destroyed seven buildings. It was the latest blow by the terrorist group Boko Haram to shake the foundations of Africa's most populous state.

Boko Haram is believed to be responsible for killing at least 1,300 people in the past two months and more than 130 people in the past week. The radical sect claims ties to al-Qaida and has ambitions to impose sharia law on Nigeria's 170 million people. In Boko Haram's heartland, even the national military is outgunned in what is fast becoming a lesson to the world in how not to tackle an Islamist insurgency.

"What is clear is that they are as ruthless as any Islamist group or terrorists anywhere in the world," said Antony Goldman, a west Africa risk analyst at London-based PM Consulting. "They're quite happy to hit soft targets, including schools. Some in the Nigerian administration expect this to be a problem for another 10 years."

In some ways, the paradox of Nigeria in 2014 captures that of Africa itself. The continent has enjoyed a decade of economic growth and the phrase "Africa rising" has become widespread among investors and journalists. Yet at the same time the past six months have seen conflicts erupt in the Central African Republic and South Sudan, while economic growth has gone hand in hand with deepening inequality.

So it is with Nigeria which, with oil wealth and a decade of annual growth around 7%, is set to overtake South Africa as Africa's biggest economy, with a value close to $400bn. It has been anointed one of the "Mint" emerging economies – along with Mexico, Indonesia and Turkey – by economist Jim O'Neill. Nigerians drink more champagne than Russians do.

For centuries, the region enjoyed the fruits of Islamic civilisation. Then in the early 19th century its sultanates succumbed to a jihad by Shehu Usuman Dan Fodio, who created a unified caliphate that was the biggest pre-colonial state in Africa, ruling swaths of what is now northern Nigeria, Niger and southern Cameroon. It had a strict interpretation of Islam and a culture of scholarship and poetry. 

Northern Nigeria did not escape the expansion of the British empire into Africa and was conquered in 1903. Since then, there has been resistance to western education, with many Muslim families refusing to send their children to government-run "western schools". Shehu Sani, a human rights activist and author of Boko Haram: History, Ideas And Revolt, said: "The north fought the British colonisers because they thought they were bringing in western ideas and this would erode Islamic values and erode their culture. 

The north-east remained a centre of Islamic learning for children from all over Nigeria and west Africa, Sani said. Its madrasas did not necessarily encourage extremism but did shape the founders of Boko Haram, who embraced the Qur'anic phrase: "Anyone who is not governed by what Allah has revealed is among the transgressors."

Some believe the trigger for the group's inception was a gubernatorial election campaign in Borno state, when an opposition candidate organised a militia known as Ecomog, after the east African intervention force deployed in Sierra Leone and Liberia in the 1990s. Following the election, the candidate disbanded Ecomog but did nothing to look after its members.

One of the militia's leaders, Mohammed Yusuf, was able to exploit the frustration and disappointment and blend it with an Islamist agenda that rejected the failings of secular government to form Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad, People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad. In the north-eastern city of Maiduguri, where the sect had its headquarters, it was dubbed Boko Haram. Loosely translated from the Hausa language, this means "western education is forbidden". 

Like so many self-appointed rebels and revolutionaries, Yusuf was not poor. He was said to be well-educated and to drive a Mercedes. In an interview with the BBC, he set out the group's anti-science philosophy: "Prominent Islamic preachers have seen and understood that the present western-style education is mixed with issues that run contrary to our beliefs in Islam. Like rain. We believe it is a creation of God rather than an evaporation caused by the sun that condenses and becomes rain. Like saying the world is a sphere. If it runs contrary to the teachings of Allah, we reject it. We reject the theory of Darwinism."

Yusuf set up a religious complex, which included a mosque and an Islamic school that attracted many poor Muslim families. In 2009 Boko Haram attacked several police stations and other official buildings in Maiduguri. The Nigerian security forces hit back and more than 1,000 people died, not all of them Boko Haram supporters. Yusuf was captured and killed, his body shown on television. Boko Haram was finished.

But its fighters regrouped under a new leader. In 2010 it attacked a prison in Bauchi state, freeing hundreds of its supporters, and carried out deadly bombings in Jos and military barracks in the Nigerian capital, Abuja. Its main modus operandi was to deploy gunmen on motorbikes to kill police, politicians and other opponents. Since then, the waves of shootings and bombings have continued and, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, Boko Haram is responsible for nearly 3,800 deaths since May 2011. The group has sworn allegiance to al-Qaida and, Sani says, some of its members have fought in Somalia and Sudan, but a formal link "cannot be independently confirmed".

If anything, Boko Haram has intensified its operations of late, including an attack that saw 43 students shot and hacked to death and many girls kidnapped. In response, the government closed five schools considered to be in "high security risk areas".

Some Nigerians who feel let down by the government are taking the fight on themselves. Zakari Matazu, survivor of the double bombing in Maiduguri, belongs to a youth vigilante group in Borno state popularly known as the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF). "Now Boko Haram are attacking everywhere because they are strong – even stronger than the soldiers," he said. "I am a CJTF but I now know that Boko Haram can decide to attack and capture the town of Maiduguri any time. Everybody knows that. The federal government has abandoned us to be killed by Boko Haram. All the people in the villages have fled to Maiduguri, so if Boko Haram does not see people killed in the villages, they will come to the city."

Last month Boko Haram threatened to strike farther afield, with potentially catastrophic consequences for the economy. Its leader, Abubakar Shekau, threatened attacks on oil refineries in the mainly Christian south, saying in a video: "Niger delta, you are in trouble." but few analysts believe the group poses an existential threat to Nigeria.

Those on the frontline are living in a parallel universe to the champagne parties in Nigeria's big cities. "We are in a state of war," Kashim Shettima, the governor of Borno state, said recently in a plea to the president. "Boko Haram are better armed and better motivated than our own troops. It is impossible for us to defeat the Boko Haram."


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