Jun 16, 2011 | 12:15 GMT

6 mins read

The Nigerian Government's Response to Northern Militancy

Northeastern Nigeria has seen a significant uptick in attacks from Islamist militant group Boko Haram in recent months, leading Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to make a June 10 announcement offering amnesty to militants who lay down their arms. However, Boko Haram's organization and goals are unclear, and the group lacks strong leadership with which to negotiate. It is thus increasingly likely that Jonathan's government will deploy security forces to the region for a harsh crackdown.
Nigerian Islamist militant group Boko Haram sharply increased its attacks in northeastern Nigeria ahead of the country's April 2011 presidential election. These attacks have continued after the election, leading President Goodluck Jonathan to announce June 10 that his government will use a "carrot and stick" strategy to end the violence, offering patronage, jobs and amnesty to Boko Haram members if they agree to stop the attacks. There are doubts about this strategy's prospects for success. Boko Haram's organizational and leadership structure are opaque and the reasons for the attacks are unclear. This makes it difficult to negotiate with the group. The violence has come nowhere near levels seen in 2009, before a crackdown on the group resulted in the killing of an estimated 800 Boko Haram members and former leader Mohammud Yusef. But Jonathan is under increasing pressure to end the attacks. It is thus increasingly likely that security forces will again be massed in the north to harshly suppress the group.

Boko Haram's Organization and Aims

Boko Haram's exact makeup is unclear. The group seems to largely lack organizational structure or strong leadership. Boko Haram is most likely a loose confederation of militant cells or individuals operating relatively independently from one another. Any leaders the group does have may be in hiding. The recent increase in violence has been attributed to a number of factors, ranging from religious conflict between northern Muslims and southern Christians to anger over Jonathan's election. While there is likely some truth to these and other theories, STRATFOR sources suggest the current spike in attacks is largely a result of instigation by northeastern politicians hoping to receive patronage from the federal government. If their demands are not met, these leaders are willing to make the northeast more difficult to govern — and at worst, to destabilize the region. Boko Haram reportedly issued a list of demands June 12, though the list's origins could not be confirmed. Even the method of delivery is disputed. According to one report, leaflets were distributed in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state. Other reports claim the list was sent in a letter to Maiduguri newspapers. The letter was reportedly written in the northern language of Hausa and signed by a suspected leader or spokesman for the group, Usman al-Zawahiri. The list reportedly calls for the resignation of Borno state Gov. Kashim Shettima and the prosecution under Shariah of former Gov. Ali Sherriff (a suspected onetime Boko Haram patron), along with other security officials the group blames for the 2009 crackdown. Other demands included the release of currently detained Boko Haram members. Notably, the list reportedly backed away from a previous demand to bring all of Nigeria under Shariah, instead only calling for "strict Shariah" in at least 12 Muslim-dominated northern states, all of which already are governed by Shariah. This apparent willingness to forgo the demand of Shariah for all of Nigeria — the group's only clear, stated goal up to now — raises the question of whether the list's disseminators speak for the majority of the group.

Locations and Nature of Recent Attacks

Attacks have so far mainly occurred in Maiduguri, with some militant activity in other areas of Borno, Bauchi and Yobe states. The attacks have had a wide range of targets: police personnel and buildings, hotels and schools, Christian churches and Islamic rivals have all been struck. Moreover, many of the attacks attributed to Boko Haram have not been claimed by the group, meaning they may have been carried out by individuals or groups not affiliated with Boko Haram. (click here to enlarge image) The recent attacks have for the most part been tactically unsophisticated, employing small arms and homemade explosives, though the latter have reportedly been delivered by catapults. However, as Boko Haram's arsenal over the last few years has largely consisted of homemade firearms and explosives more likely to detonate during construction than to be deployed, this does represent an upgrade in the group's weapons and delivery systems. The group also appears to have improved its tactics, as seen in the June 7 coordinated attacks on St. Patrick's cathedral and the Gwange police station. This matches the typical pattern of evolution for small militant groups of Boko Haram's ilk. The improvement in weapons quality likely means the group has made contact with suppliers in Chad or Niger, two countries awash in small arms, or even militants in the Niger Delta. One notable attack targeted a joint police and military unit in Maiduguri on May 12. The militants reportedly used a command-detonated improvised explosive device on the side of the road near the unit's checkpoint. Successfully constructing and deploying such a weapon requires technical and tactical capabilities vastly superior to those demonstrated in previous Boko Haram attacks. This may indicate that some Boko Haram members or cells have received outside training, possibly from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) or another of the more sophisticated militant groups with an interest in stirring unrest in Nigeria. Connections between Boko Haram and AQIM have long been rumored, but there is no way to verify a link. STRATFOR sources report seeing Nigerians in AQIM training camps near the Nigerien-Mauritanian border, but these were not necessarily affiliated with Boko Haram. Even if AQIM is communicating with or training Boko Haram members, the latter group's decentralized nature likely limits the scale of the cooperation. However, if sophisticated attacks such as that on May 12 become more common and spread to other parts of Nigeria, they will give a clearer indication of Boko Haram's operational capabilities.

Cycle of Violence

Boko Haram's decentralized structure, and apparent inability to agree on the reasons for fighting, will make it difficult for the government to negotiate. It is thus unlikely that Jonathan's June 10 offer of amnesty will quell the violence. It is also worth noting that the Nigerian government has its own reasons for inflating the threat posed by Boko Haram militants, including drawing military funding and support from countries such as the United States. The already strong pressure on Jonathan to crush Boko Haram will intensify if attacks continue, making it more likely that the government will deploy security forces in a crackdown mirroring that of 2009. While this would lessen the violence in the short term, it will not alter the underlying conditions that led to the militancy. Thus, northern Nigeria can expect a long-term cycle of increased violence followed by harsh security crackdowns by Nigerian security forces.

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