In 2011, northern Nigeria’s highest-ranking Christian official warned that the rebel group Boko Haram’s violent campaign seeking to establish an Islamic state could lead to a religious war.
But nearly three years later, Saidu Dogo – the former secretary-general of the Christian Association of Nigeria in the country’s 19 northern provinces – said “the thinking of the people is changing completely”.
Christians living in Nigeria’s north, where Muslims make up the majority of the population, have seen themselves as the primary target of Boko Haram, a group that has killed thousands of people since it began its militant campaign in 2009. But as the group’s attacks have become more indiscriminate, killing Christian and Muslim civilians alike, attitudes have begun to change.
“This thing backfired,” said Dogo. Now, he said, “you can see the condemnation is both Muslim and Christian; everybody is condemning this … everybody is turning against the insurgents”.
Boko Haram, which kidnapped more than 200 girls from their boarding school in northeastern Nigeria last month, had in the past tried to win the hearts and minds of Muslim Nigerians. The group’s founder, Muhammed Yusuf, rose in popularity during the group’s early days by criticising governmental corruption and what he considered to be the incomplete implementation of Islamic law in northern Nigeria. During clashes in 2009, Yusuf was arrested and extrajudicially executed by Nigerian security forces, an incident that helped to attract more recruits to the group.
“In a region in which education standards are extremely low and there is a long-standing history of religious radicalism and anti-establishment dissidence, Boko Haram’s cause was able to find rich breeding grounds,” said Roddy Barclay, a senior West Africa analyst for Control Risks, a risk consultancy firm.
|The origins of Boko Haram|
‘Isolated as a common enemy’
After Yusuf was killed, the group went underground, and in 2010 began attacking security forces and government buildings. Northeastern Nigeria’s deep poverty and unemployment problems helped produce sympathy among people who see themselves as marginalised by the state. The group also attacked churches and moderate Muslim clerics who opposed the group’s violence and strict interpretation of Islam.
Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for several attacks that included bomb explosions in markets, killing both Muslim and Christian bystanders.
“In a lot of ways, Boko Haram has been isolated as a common enemy by both Christians and Muslims,” said Clement Nwankwo, executive director of the Abuja-based Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre.
Though its stronghold is in northeastern Nigeria, Boko Haram has tried to take advantage of inter-communal tensions in Nigeria’s “Middle Belt”, where the country’s northern Muslim herder communities and southern Christian farming populations meet. Clashes between these communities claimed more than 1,000 people in five central states from December 2013 to April 15, and more than 10,000 people since 1992, according to Human Rights Watch.
On May 20, at least 118 people were killed by bomb blasts in the central Nigerian city of Jos. No-one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but Boko Haram involvement is suspected.
Nevertheless, Boko Haram’s attacks have failed to spread violence south of the Middle Belt.
“They were aiming to start up a religious war, but they were unable to achieve that,” said Shehu Sani, president of Civil Rights Congress, a Kaduna-based rights group. “They wanted the Christians to see them as representatives of the Muslims, which Christians now are beginning to differentiate between moderate Muslims and also terrorists, extremists.”
Both Muslim and Christian organisations have criticised the Nigerian government for moving too slowly against Boko Haram. Human rights groups accuse security forces of making matters worse by allegedly committing abuses against Boko Haram suspects and civilians unrelated to the group – reducing chances of cooperation from civilians. For their part, Nigerian authorities claim their forces abide by international law.
Jama’atu Nasril Islam (JNI), an umbrella body representing Nigeria’s Muslims, has condemned Boko Haram’s activities as un-Islamic. The group is discussing among its clerics how to defuse Boko Haram’s violent message through peaceful spiritual sermons, as well as through meetings with Christian leaders, said Khalid Abubakar Aliyu, JNI’s secretary-general.
Aliyu listed a number of factors he said were behind Boko Haram’s rise. “There are so many things: Poverty, unemployment and so many things coordinated together to make these things just erupt out of the blue,” he said, urging the government to address the region’s developmental needs instead of taking a solely military approach.
Last year, civilians in the northeast, tired of the non-stop attacks, formed vigilante groups to capture Boko Haram suspects, forming roadblocks and handing over suspects to the authorities.
“The extreme violence of Boko Haram – increasingly against Muslim civilian populations – has turned many against their cause, prompting both the creation of civilian militia groups and a more generalised weariness and anger stemming from the constant violence,” said Barclay.
Meanwhile, Nigeria is gearing up for elections scheduled to be held next year. Incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan has not yet said whether he plans to run. A Christian from the south, Jonathan was accused in 2011 by northerners of breaking an unwritten rule within the ruling People’s Democratic Party to rotate the presidency every eight years between northern and southern nominees. More violence in the north could erupt if Jonathan does decide to run in next year’s elections.
“The election period is likely to be turbulent. Yet despite the likelihood of a hotly contested and violent poll, the most likely scenario will see Nigeria limp through this period of tension and uncertainty with national stability intact,” Barclay predicted.