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Feb 9, 2012 | 13:42 GMT

5 mins read

Boko Haram Faces Backlash in Nigeria

The Bompai police barracks in Kano, Nigeria, on Jan. 24
AMINU ABUBAKAR/AFP/Getty Images

Boko Haram, the dominant militant group in northern Nigeria, in the past five years has attempted to expand beyond its core area of activity in the country's northeast. The group is facing an increasing backlash against these efforts, most recently in the form of a new Islamist militant group calling itself Ansarul Muslimina Fi Biladis Sudan ("Supporters of Muslims in the Lands of Sudan," abbreviated to Ansaru), which announced its formation Feb. 1 with the stated goal of countering Boko Haram.

Ansaru's membership and capabilities are largely unknown, but the group's announcement is noteworthy in that it demonstrates the geographic limits of Boko Haram's reach in the north. It also may provide the government of President Goodluck Jonathan, which has been wary of Boko Haram's recent expansion, with a counterbalance that could seriously undermine the group's northern support network.

Northern Nigeria's Ethno-Sectarian Divide

Boko Haram gained notoriety in 2007 with a series of attacks on civilians in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state. Since then the group, whose stated goal is to establish Sharia in all of Nigeria, has conducted successful attacks on banks, churches, mosques and government facilities. It carried out two successful vehicle-borne improvised explosive device attacks in Nigeria's capital, Abuja, in June and August 2011, demonstrating both its geographic reach and its technical capabilities.

The group's recent westward expansion has taken it to a historical ethno-sectarian fault line across which reside other Muslim ethnicities. Predominant among these are the majority Hausa-Fulani, who are descended from the Sokoto Caliphate, a historical rival of the Bornu Empire. The divide between the two empires included differences in the way they practiced Islam — differences that still exist between the Kanuri and Hausa-Fulani.

Boko Haram's expansion has come in the form of increasing attacks in Bauchi and Yobe states, which straddle this ethno-sectarian line. As the group's attacks began to kill more Hausa-Fulani, a backlash among western Nigerian Muslims has been mounting, particularly in Kano, Kano state, Nigeria's second largest city and the country's northern commercial hub. Several of Boko Haram's members had been arrested and held in Kano, which is geographically situated just west of northern Nigeria's ethno-sectarian fault line, and politicians there allegedly stopped monthly patronage payments to the group in December 2011 (such payments to militant groups are fairly common in Nigeria; politicians often use militant activity to garner financing for their respective regions).

Then on Jan. 20, Boko Haram struck in Kano with a coordinated series of explosive attacks and armed assaults targeting police facilities, government offices and politicians' homes. The attacks killed more than 185 people, aided the escape of several Boko Haram members in police custody and plunged the city into chaos for several days.

Abul Qaqa, a Boko Haram spokesman arrested after the attack, alleged that the organization had threatened to attack Kano three times before it finally did, indicating that the group had been hesitant to attack Kano residents. The group has not provided a reason for the attack, but given the attack's nature, it likely was an effort to counter the growing backlash and to restore funding from Kano politicians.

However, the attack appears to have had the opposite effect. Ansaru announced its creation one and a half weeks later with flyers disseminated through Kano, decrying Boko Haram's killing of innocent fellow Muslims and pledging to restore the dignity of Islam in Nigeria to the Sokoto Caliphate. Security forces have also increased crackdowns on the group, arresting at least 158 suspected Boko Haram members in Kano in the week after the attack. Powerful former patrons of the group who shifted their positions and encouraged tougher security measures after the Jan. 20 attack likely aided these arrests.

Boko Haram's Constraints

The growing resistance to Boko Haram in the north represents a key opportunity for Jonathan's government to weaken the group. Jonathan has already met with Muslim leaders in Borno state as well as prominent Hausa-Fulani community members such as the sultan of Sokoto, the modern leader of the Sokoto Caliphate. The sultan has called for northern Muslim leaders to convene in the last two weeks to discuss Boko Haram and strategies to reduce its reach in northern Nigeria. These leaders will prove key in solidifying anti-Boko Haram sentiment in northern Nigeria.

Ansaru represents another constraint to Boko Haram. While the group has yet to take any action beyond announcing its formation, its base in Kano gives it a potential local support base that is ethnically and historically distinct from Boko Haram's northeastern core. This works both ways: While the group's potential support base provides an ethnic obstacle to block Boko Haram's expansion, it also means Ansaru would face difficulties of its own if it attempted to expand east into majority Kanuri territory.

Groups such as Ansaru can also undermine Boko Haram by taking advantage of political patronage from the Nigerian government. Boko Haram's patronage network is weakening, evidenced by the arrest of Borno Sen. Mohammed Ali Ndume for alleged ties to the group; the proliferation of anti-Boko Haram groups would thus benefit the Jonathan government.

The backlash against Boko Haram across northern Nigeria's Islamic landscape exposes the geographic limits of the group's expansion west. Though able to conduct occasional attacks within the west, Boko Haram is unlikely to be successful in its efforts to expand past its northeastern core. As the group continues to attack within Kano or even farther west, it will face a mounting resistance from inside the Muslim community. With Boko Haram now having to divert its operational focus to containing dissent, the central government has a more serious chance of weakening the group.

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