Nigeria braces for escalation in terrorist attacks
Senior political and military figures say government has lost control of security amid wave of Boko Haram bombings
The Guardian UK
25 September 2012
The Nigerian government has lost control of security and lacks a coherent strategy to counter the threat of terrorism, according to its own advisers.
Senior political and military figures have told the Guardian of their growing pessimism over the state’s ability to contain Boko Haram, the Islamist sect behind a deadly wave of bombings and kidnappings in northern Nigeria, and are bracing themselves for an escalation in attacks.
“We have a serious problem in Nigeria and there is no sense that the government has a real grip,” a senior official close to the government said on condition of anonymity. “The situation is not remotely under control. It is just a matter of time before we see more large-scale attacks that pose a significant threat to national security, and now Nigeria’s economic growth is also at risk.”
In 2009 Boko Haram launched a new phase of operations following the killing of its leader, Muhammad Yusuf, by police and security forces.
Since then, a campaign of deadly church bombings has left hundreds dead, while attacks on mobile phone base stations have paralysed telecommunications in the north, causing an estimated £3m worth of damage.
The government has tried to fight back against the sect, and claims to have killed at least 35 militants earlier this week, and detained 60 others during raids in Adamawa and Yobe states in northern Nigeria – two of the areas most affected by the violence.
But its failure to stop Boko Haram attacks has led many to question the leadership of President Goodluck Jonathan, who promised in March that security services would end the insurgency by June.
A senior defence official, who asked not to be named, expressed concern that the government had failed to demonstrate the necessary political leadership to combat the threat posed by Boko Haram.
“Leadership is the problem,” said the source. “When we had military dictatorships in Nigeria, we did not experience this kind of weak decision-making. There is no way we can combat this threat without more decisive action. You cannot divorce what is happening from weak leadership and the failure to repair the divisions in our society.
“The level of poverty in the north, and the way southerners are behaving with impunity – it is not surprising that there is this level of discontent in northern Nigeria.”
Experts have frequently attributed the rise of Boko Haram to the growing divide between rich and poor, compounded by regionalism that has often pitched the largely Christian south against the mostly Muslim north.
“These acts are a reaction against decades of neglect,” the source close to the government said. “There are similar factors to what we saw driving revolution in the Arab spring.
Manir Dan Ali, editor of the Daily Trust newspaper, said: “The Boko Haram phenomenon underlines the failure of the Nigerian state.
“The government has ignored the advice of its own security officials, who warned of the danger signals long ago, and worse, lacks a coherent strategy for dealing with the problem and its underlying causes of poverty, neglect and a lack of opportunities for the young.”
“Male members of security forces have been going in and raiding women’s quarters – terrifying the women and humiliating the men,” said Chidi Odinkalu, chair of Nigeria’s national human rights commission. “These are minimal things that the state should be able to achieve – to train the soldiers on these sensitivities and use female soldiers. You can’t fight an insurgency by alienating part of the community.”
The source close to the government said: “There are middle-ranking senior officers who understand the counter-productive nature of raids and extrajudicial executions. But that understanding is not filtering down quickly enough to junior officers – they are making bad decisions and they are not adequately trained. The police are ethically broken, and the armed forces don’t trust the police.
“If you talk to Nigerians in the north, the misbehaviour of the security forces has become a significant factor in strengthening support for Boko Haram.”
But the relationship between Boko Haram and officials is complex, experts say, with some in the security services assisting the sect.
“Some members of the security forces have been working as double agents,” said Adunola Abiola, founder of Think Security Africa, a thinktank specialising in security issues in Africa.
“Improved and regular vetting of security personnel is very important for improving security management in the country generally.”
The Nigerian government has been under renewed pressure to combat Boko Haram since the US decided to designate three members of the sect as foreign terrorists, giving US authorities powers under US law to take action.
Abiola said: “This designation would in theory give various departments and agencies in the US government the power to actively pursue these men which could in theory result in a violation of Nigeria’s sovereignty and possibly even territorial integrity.