As the paved roads of north-eastern Nigeria begin to melt into the sands of the Sahara desert, a cluster of picture-perfect mud-and-thatch homes marks the entrance into Boko Haram territory. Here, barely 30 minutes’ drive from the neat government complexes flanked by fountains and tamarind trees in Borno state’s capital, Maiduguri, power slips almost entirely into the hands of the group trying to carve an Islamist state in Africa’s most populous country.
“They walk around here holding their guns as if they are carrying just ordinary bottles of water,” said Garba, an old man laying out bundles of straw in the blazing sun. He waved at the horizon where goats and camels grazed on scrubby bushes. “That is where they bury [their guns] in the sand.”
“You shouldn’t stay long – they kill anyone they don’t know here,” he added.
The increasing infiltration of far-flung settlements such as this, dotted along a route that leads into hideouts in the vast Sahara that spans porous borders, prompted Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, on Tuesday to impose a state of emergency on the north-eastern states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa. “In many places, they have destroyed the Nigerian flag and other symbols of state authority and in their place, hoisted strange flags suggesting the exercise of alternative sovereignty,” he said during the televised announcement.
Around 8,000 troops will be granted sweeping powers in an attempt to crush the insurgency militarily, a move that could inflame tensions with local communities and is likely to mean pulling some Nigerian troops from the west African-led force battling a separate Islamist insurgency in Mali.
Chris Olukolade, the national defence spokesman, said the bulk of military action would focus on border communities.
Bolstered by sophisticated weapons from Libya, The Guardian has learned Boko Haram is trying to strengthen its hold through chilling new tactics that include forcible conscription.
Indigo-robed men on camels ride past cars rusting on the side of the explosive-ridden road. The windows of government health centres have been blasted out, and bullet holes scar the weed-covered signposts of schools. Yards away from the remains of a camel protruding from the sand, a cluster of children in bright rags sit under the shade of a neem tree, carefully copying their lessons onto chalkboards in an almajari, or Qur’anic school.
In the dust-blown city of Maiduguri, where the group’s secretive membership has thrown a cloak of suspicion over entire neighbourhoods, civilians gathered in nervous knots to watch troops pouring in.
“I see plenty of soldiers moving in with their trucks chanting their war songs, but they are just going in there to kill innocent citizens,” said resident Abba Kakami. “What happens if soldiers meet farmers who carry [traditional hunting] guns? How can they differentiate between a terrorist and a civilian?”
Just off the main roads where cars are forced to brake suddenly at barked orders from policemen behind sandbags, residents have long barricaded their own side streets against the security forces in a city that appears at war with itself.
“Boko Haram are the kings of these streets,” said Hamza, grilling sticks of meat in an otherwise deserted street in London Chiki, a neighbourhood scarred with burnt out homes. With a nervous glance over his shoulder where a nearby notice threatened to kill any informants, he said: “What do the security forces expect us to do in this situation? You keep quiet before [Boko Haram] send you to your grave.”
Weakened by a military crackdown and brutal internal codes that have seen members peel away to form splinter groups, Boko Haram commanders have also turned to ruthless new methods as they attempt to stage a comeback.
In the past, most captured operatives cited jihad and promises of paradise during interrogations, security officials and two locals in regular contact with Boko Haram cells told the Guardian. Now they increasingly give a disturbing new motive: they have been ordered to kill or be killed themselves.
“They told us members assigned to ‘high-value areas’ must get a ‘hit’ within two weeks, or their own commanders kill them,” said a senior intelligence official who interrogates suspects in the northern capital, Kano. “It doesn’t matter who they kill; they have to kill to stay alive.”
Among the earliest to experience this was Kano-based mechanic Chuku, who found himself sharing a jail cell with 17 militants last year after failing to scrape together a police bribe. “They talked about the Qur’an and said soon Nigeria would be an Islamic state,” Chuku said, talking quietly in a dust-covered liquor store of the kind targeted by the insurgents.
Peering anxiously into the streets, where turbaned guardsmen on horseback, living ghosts of Kano’s empire glory days, rode past patrolling police tanks, he said: “They told me not to worry because some of their guys were going to get us out of this jail.”
When an explosion rocked the jail cell a week later, an attack which left 185 dead, his cell occupants started cheering. As Chuku made to escape the grounds strewn with bodies, two men grabbed him and sniffed his clothes to make sure he wasn’t a police officer – those held in police cells are almost never allowed to wash or change clothes – then led him to a Peugeot van. “The boot was full of AK47s with barrels sawn off. They told me I must take one, and kill a policeman or they will kill me,” Chuku said.
He took a gun and escaped from the men in the chaos of the battle.
Nigerian troops also face a group who appear to have a new military edge after gaining control of weapons from Libya. In Bama this month, a co-ordinated strike against a police station army barracks left 55 dead and freed over 100. “They came in with around 20 pickup trucks, around half of them were mounted with anti-aircraft guns,” said a policeman who was present during the attacks. “This is a weapon that can bring down a commercial jet. As soon as you fire one of those things, nobody knows what is happening.”
Analysts say emergency rule could weaken urban cells, but questions remain as to what happens once the six-month emergency rule is lifted. “The growing militarisation of the north-east will provide short-term gains, but will fail to address the root drivers of militancy,” Control Risks Africa analyst Roddy Barclay said.
(story by Monica Mark – Guardian UK)
What is Boko Haram?
GIVEN that it has killed 3,600 people over the past four years, Boko Haram gets surprisingly little attention outside its native Nigeria. Though it has an Islamist tinge and has often attacked Christian churches, security analysts are unsure whether it should be described as a terrorist organisation, or even a group at all. Nevertheless, Nigeria’s government is currently pursuing talks with Boko Haram, whatever it is, and holding out the possibility of an amnesty for its members.
Boko Haram began life in the early 2000s in northern Nigeria which, unlike the predominantly Christian south of the country, is dominated by Muslims. Its name, which translates as “Western education is sinful”, gives a flavour of its ideology. Few people paid it much attention until 2009 when its leader, a young cleric called Mohammed Yusuf, was killed while in police custody after fighting broke out between his supporters and the Nigerian army. Since then it has targeted policemen and members of the army, as well as bombing churches and a UN building in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja.
Religion may be Boko Haram’s rallying cry but it would be wrong to consider it a Nigerian imitator of al-Qaeda. The group calls for the implementation of sharia law across Nigeria, a frequent demand of Muslims around the world. But it does not seem to want a universal caliphate, which is one hallmark of Islamist jihadi groups. In fact quite what Boko Haram wants is not clear. Self-appointed spokespeople for the group occasionally make pronouncements on its behalf but may have no authority to do so. All that can be said for sure is that it justifies its attacks against the Nigerian state using the language of religious struggle.
This uncertainty makes Boko Haram difficult to respond to. But the attempts of the Nigerian state to treat it as a security problem, while understandable given the number of killings, have tended to make matters worse. A military raid on the northern town of Baga on April 16th and 17th seems to have left 180 dead and more than 2,000 buildings razed, according to Human Rights Watch, which also points out that the government’s accounts of what happened do not tally with evidence from satellite photographs. Many northern Nigerians are still more afraid of the army than of Boko Haram, despite all its bombs. President Goodluck Jonathan has set up a committee to talk peace with Boko Haram’s leaders. Its first task is to figure out who they are.
Aljazeera explains more about the Boko Haram of Nigeria in this video: