Political Violence and Islamist Militancy become Entwined in Maiduguri Bombing

Andrew McGregor

January 25, 2014

After four years of counter-terrorist operations and a state of emergency in Nigeria’s three northeast provinces since last May, Nigeria’s security forces appear to have made little progress in restoring security, though their efforts may be complicated by the ruthless political style of northern Nigeria as the nation approached general elections in 2015.

The deeper roots of political violence in northern Nigeria (of which Boko Haram is only a symptom) were well displayed in the January 14 suicide bombing in Maiduguri that killed 43 people (Daily Times Nigeria, January 15). The explosion occurred close to a JTF military post at mid-day on the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, when the city center was certain to be filled with people (Salafists reject observance of the mawlid, the Prophet’s birthday).

Soon after the blast, hundreds of youths wearing shirts and hats bearing the insignia of the All Progressives Congress (APC – a 2013 alliance of Nigeria’s four main opposition parties) armed with clubs and machetes began targeting vehicles believed to belong to supporters of the former state governor, Ali Modu Sheriff, and the current state deputy governor, Zannah Mustapha, both APC members (the vehicles were identified by the widespread use of political party stickers).. The rioters were on their way to the homes of Sheriff and Mustapha when they were intercepted by security forces. Sheriff was in the city for the first time in 11 months and left shortly after the blast. Others of the APC-clad youth actually tried to attack the local APC office while chanting: “We are going see the end of Ali Sheriff and his accomplice, Zannah Mustapha, who have brought this calamity to us. They are behind this bomb explosion” (Premium Times [Abuja], January 15). Sheriff helped the current governor of Borno State, Kashim Shettima, into office in 2011, but the two APC members are now engaged in a bitter rivalry, with Sheriff indicating he plans to campaign to take the office back in 2015.

Ali Modu Sheriff

There were reports that many of the rioting youth were actually members of the “Civilian JTF,” a local anti-Boko Haram vigilante group that also appears to be for hire in regional political disputes (Daily Post [Lagos], January 12; Sahara Reporters [Lagos], January 14).

The Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states of northeast Nigeria have been under a state of emergency since last May. The Borno state capital has not been targeted by bombings since the multi-service Joint Task Force (JTF) and other security forces established a security regime in the city last May. There was no claim of responsibility for the latest Maiduguri bombing, though the military blamed Boko Haram (PM News [Lagos], January 14). The bombing was the first in Maiduguri proper since the city’s market was attacked in March 2013.

A statement issued a day after the blast in the name of Sheriff’s campaign manager, Bako Bunu, claimed that the Maiduguri bombing was actually the work of “evil state government officials in Borno who are doing this in the name of scoring cheap and irresponsible political goals,” referring to Sheriff’s political opponents within the APC (Premium Times [Lagos], January 15). However, a week later Kolo said he was surprised to see his name on the statement, claiming he had been away in Chad and heard nothing of the matter until his return while adding he had denied making the statement without any external coercion (Premium Times [Lagos], January 21).

Borno State governor, Alhaji Kashim Shettima, was pelted with stones in Maiduguri in January 11 after word spread that he had intended to humiliate Sherrif by hiring “Civilian JTF” vigilantes, various thugs and elements of the security services to prevent Sherrif’s arrival in the city.  Sherrif revised his plans and arrived to a chorus of supporters chanting “‘The Leader is back, the leader is back, we don’t want Kashim Shettima’s style of leadership” (Daily Post [Lagos], January 12).

Borno State Governor Kashim Shettima

Four days after the Maiduguri blast, Boko Haram members attacked Banki, a town along the Cameroon border. The militants attacked the police station with RPGs first, driving away police before starting to go door-to-door slitting the throats of residents (Osun Defender, January 18). Two nights later, the Islamists struck Alau Ngawo village in northeastern Borno State, burning houses and killing 18 people in a two hour rampage before security forces arrived (Reuters, January 20).

Boko Haram was blamed for a January 8 attack on a mosque in the Kano State village of Kwankwaso, about 20 miles from Kano city. However, there were indications the attack was actually politically motivated by opponents of the state governor, Rabi’u Musa Kwankwaso, who hails from the village and defected to the opposition only a month before the attack (Reuters, January 8).

Boko Haram has shown little respect for Nigeria’s armed services, repeatedly attacking military installations rather than avoiding them. Hundreds of fighters stormed Maiduguri’s international airport and air-base on December 2, 2013, damaging two helicopters and three decommissioned military aircraft (al-Jazeera, January 14). It later developed that the attackers had badly damaged equipment belonging to the civil Nigerian Airspace Management Agency, forcing the cancellation of all civilian flights into the airport until next March (Osun Defender, December 31, 2013).Attacks on military targets in the last few months have allowed Boko Haram to build a considerable arsenal.

Residents of the three states under emergency rule have consistently complained of a casual attitude towards collateral damage and civilian casualties amongst the security forces deployed there. The issue came to national attention on January 12, when a Nigerian jet fighter targeted a convoy carrying Senator Muhammad Ali Ndume in the Gworza area of Borno state. Though the convoy was escorted by marked army and police vehicles, the pilot dropped four bombs, all of which landed on the nearby village of Pulka. The attack highlighted the Nigerian Air Force’s tendency to mount bombing runs without coordination with ground forces (Premium Times [Lagos], January 13).

With criticism of the military effort in the northeast spreading two days after the Maiduguri blast, President Goodluck Jonathan sacked Nigeria’s military leadership, appointing an air force officer from the northeast (Adamawa State), Air Marshal Alex Badeh, as the new chief-of-defense-staff. Brimming with confidence, Badeh has promised to finish counter-insurgency operations in the northeast by the time the state of emergency runs out in April: “I can only say that this thing is already won” (AFP, January 20).

In the current climate, political violence can be expected to increase over the next year in northern Nigeria, with attackers needing to do little more than yell “Allahu Akhbar” to have the incidents blamed on Boko Haram. At the same time, Boko Haram remains very active in the rural areas, particularly along the borders of the northeastern states. Cross-border security cooperation, especially with Cameroon, remains poor. Improved security in the urban areas of the region has inadvertently left the unemployed youth of the vigilante groups with little to do, creating a useful pool of recruits for political thuggery in the run-up to the 2015 elections.

This article first appeared in the January 25, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.