LAGOS – Abuja, Nigeria’s sparkling new capital, is a city under siege. In August, Boko Haram, a shadowy and violent Muslim sect operating in the northeastern part of the country, bombed a building housing staff of the United Nations in the central part of the city, killing 23 people and seriously injuring 86. It was Nigeria’s first suicide bombing, and the audacity and ferocity of the attack have thrown government officials and citizens alike into panic mode.
Ever since its bloody repression of the Igbo secession bid in the late 1960’s, Nigeria’s military has prided itself on its ability to “neutralize” ethno-religious insurgency and preserve the country’s unity. Throughout the 1990’s and into the first years of the new millennium, it battled youth-led armed militias in the Niger Delta to assert the central government’s control of the region’s substantial oil receipts. The O’odua People’s Congress, an ethnic self-determination movement in the western part of the country, was also met with military force.
But attempts to apply the same severe medicine to Boko Haram have backfired. A military contingent that the government dispatched in 2009 to Maiduguri, the northern city that has become the sect’s bastion, killed its leader, Mohammed Yusuf, his father-in-law, and many of their followers. But the rump of Boko Haram then went underground, before re-emerging more ferocious and better organized.
Yusuf has since become a martyr, and daily attacks on hotels, bars, churches, and schools are usually followed with admonitions to Nigerians to shun the Western way of life. (Boko Haram, loosely translated, means “Western education is forbidden.”)