Once confined to the realm of lesser known terrorist organizations, Boko Haram has vastly stepped up its campaign in recent weeks and months. The group originally garnered some sympathy for the less than ideal conditions faced by Nigeria’s Muslims in the north of the country. An empathy towards the group has long since faded, as since 2009 its rhetoric and actions have taken a hard tack towards greater shows of violence, following the killing of its founder. The group bombed UN headquarters in Abuja in August, killing 23 people and setting off a new round of condemnation and crackdown by the government with Boko Haram continuing to push back.
The struggle reached a crescendo on Christmas Day. Five churches across Nigeria were bombed by Boko Haram. Nearly forty died in the violence, with many more wounded. Boko Haram quickly took credit for the carnage, prompting a harsh condemnation from the Nigerian government and the international community. Nigerian authorities moved quickly to arrest two suspects, though when asked about details, the government only said that the two were “caught in action”.
The Christmas Day bombings were a nightmare, but the worst is potentially yet to come. Two days later, a homemade bomb was thrown into an Islamic school where students were learning the Qu’ran. Seven were wounded in the attack, six of whom were children under the age of nine. The bombing sparked a fierce debate on Twitter over the targeting of civilians in times of conflict and strife, especially children. No matter what your enemy deems is a justifiable target, there are standards that must be followed and fiercely protected if you’re to have any semblance of the upper hand, both morally and in terms of protecting your own people. Retaliatory strikes against civilian populations only engender further attacks against your own population, as they are clearly marked as fair game to both sides. The escalation is inevitable once both sides take that initial step, leaving both sides depleted and wrecked if and when the conflict finally comes to a close, made all the less likely due to the feelings of resentment that are sure to linger.
It’s still unknown who threw that bomb into the madrassa, though police suspect it was a local vigilante. What is known is that the Christian community in Nigeria is asking for a response from the state, and rightly so. President Goodluck Jonathan’s government is fast losing the confidence of its Christian constituents:
“It is considered as a declaration of war on Christians and Nigeria,” Ayo Oritsejafor, head of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) said. “CAN has found the responses of … Islamic bodies on this matter to be unacceptable and an abdication of their responsibilities.”
“The Christian Community is fast losing confidence in government’s ability to protect our rights.”
President Jonathan’s problems are multiple at this stage. The second that Christian groups truly lose faith in his government’s ability protect them, that’s it. Game over. Boko Haram will have won. A demographic that has determined that the government’s monopoly on the use of force no longer benefits them will seize it for themselves, leading to larger and bloodier clashes. It is my belief that the chaos that would come from a such an escalation would allow for an upswing of violence in the Niger Delta. MEND has threatened recently to break its cease-fire with the state and could take advantage of the discord in an attempt to bring about its own separation in the event of a North-South split. Such large-scale sectarian conflict between the North and South would quickly spill over into neighboring countries, and disrupt the entirety of West Africa. All of these things serve to weaken the central government, Boko Haram’s primary goal.
The solution cannot be one solely of force, however. A two-track approach should be adopted by President Jonathan to simultaneously discourage Boko Haram from further attacks, while working to adjudicate the legitimate grievances that launched the group on its current path, rather than the heavy-handed military-driven response seen previously. The majority of the oil wealth of Nigeria is produced in the South, the production of which has allowed Nigeria to become the powerful state it has today. The income raised from oil must be more equitably distributed into programs in the North for development. Political power must be spread further as well, bringing elites and those representative of various Muslim groups into the fold of government. Alleviating these problems, however, cannot come without the show of force and restoration of central control that is needed to suppress the movement’s practitioners of violence and provide assurances to the Christian community that the government takes its protection seriously. Through this dual-track, Goodluck Jonathan can both eliminate the current stable of fighters while ending the main draw for new recruits.
The Nigerian government doesn’t have to act alone in this matter. One of the more muscular of regional organizations, ECOWAS has long stepped outside of its original scope as an economic alliance, and has often provided military support to its members as they face violence and the threat of civil war. While Nigeria is its most powerful member, calling upon its fellow states to prevent Boko Haram from having safe havens or locales to coordinate with AQIM would be beneficial to government efforts. The United States pledged its support in the aftermath of the Christmas Day bombings as well, an offer the government is sure to take up gladly.
Further, it should be noted that Boko Haram’s violence isn’t confined to the government or Christian targets. Only today a mosque in Maiduguri was bombed, leading to several deaths and injuries in the ensuing stampede; the government has blamed Boko Haram for the blast. Boko Haram’s violence against all Nigerians is an exploitable advantage in ending their campaign. The President should quickly call upon representatives from the Muslim and Christian communities to join him in Abuja for a frank dialogue in an effort to ease tensions. Meanwhile, an assurance that the rule of law applies to both sects would be well-received by international watchers of the situation, with a government pledge to act in the interest of Christians and Muslims that come under attack. The quicker the government responds with something other than bullets to show that it’s taking the situation seriously, the less of a leg Boko Haram will have to stand on in pursuing its goals.