LAGOS – Nigerian security forces recently razed a northeastern fishing village, leaving almost 200 people dead and destroying some 2,000 homes, in order to root out just a few members of the radical Islamist sect Boko Haram. The assault reflected the military’s growing frustration with the extremists who have staged scores of attacks in the last four years. While Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon have condemned the army’s heavy-handed approach, this is not the first time that clashes with extremists have caused significant collateral damage – and it almost certainly will not be the last.
Boko Haram, whose primary objective is to compel Nigeria to adopt Sharia law, has proved surprisingly resilient since declaring war on the government in 2009, in response to the military’s execution of its leader, Mohammed Yusuf. Using hit-and-run guerilla tactics and suicide bombers, Boko Haram has attacked police stations, government buildings, and churches, killing thousands. Despite violent clashes with a special military task force in Borno and Yobe, the northern states where the sect is most active, Boko Haram remains robust.
Political sensitivities in the predominantly Muslim north have forced Jonathan, a Christian southerner, to tread lightly in his efforts to contain Boko Haram. Many northerners resent that the presidency was returned to a southerner after only one term with a northerner in office (an informal agreement mandates that the presidency should alternate between north and south every two terms).
Northern politicians and emirs (traditional Muslim leaders) have used the ongoing insurgency to damage Jonathan’s credibility, thereby strengthening their campaign to return the presidency to the north. First, they ordered that Jonathan disband the military task force, claiming that it was occupying the north and harassing civilians. They then called on Jonathan to extend amnesty to Boko Haram’s members and to initiate a dialogue. Jonathan initially refused their requests, stating last month that he could not negotiate with “ghosts.”