Trouble Comes to Nigeria

A series of explosions ripped through Nigeria’s second largest city of Kano on Friday, targeting government and police offices. By Saturday, the militant group Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the deadly attack whose final death toll is not yet determined but is expected to be over 200 people.

Boko Haram was founded in 2002 as an anti-Western Salafi sect in Northern Nigeria. Since then, the group has evolved into a jihadist militia opposing the Nigerian government and all contact with the West. Starting 2009, Boko Haram began to carry out attacks against government outposts and critics of their ideology. But despite their violent past, the group has only recently gained international attention as their attacks grew in size and coordination. A series of attacks in Maiduguri and Abuja in June 2011 followed by the bombing of the UN’s Nigeria headquarters in August moved Boko Haram to the front page of security briefs in the West and rumors of US military advisers being deployed to the region to help the government gained credence. With last week’s bombings, this is unlikely to change.

It would be easy to couch the existence of Boko Haram and their appeal in Northern Nigeria in terms of Muslim versus Christian, especially given Nigeria’s history of religious strife. But while Boko Haram is an Islamist group with an extreme Islamic ideology, their supporters are drawn mainly from the unemployed youth in the more impoverished northern states who are frustrated by government corruption and limited opportunities despite Nigeria’s oil wealth. In some ways the increasing prominence of Boko Haram over the past year tracks with the growth of protest movements around the world. Most of these movements, whether in the Global North or the Global South, focus on public corruption, the lack of accountability, and a quest for personal dignity. However the frustration behind these movements has been channeled in a variety of ways, from protests in Tunisia and Egypt, to riots in the UK and war in Libya. Without addressing these larger issues as well as the religious desires underpinning the movement, the world will be hearing a lot more about the chaos of Boko Haram.

This much is clear. What is unclear is what this all means for the future of Nigeria. Do these attacks mean Boko Haram has officially declared war on Nigeria? If so, will a war on these terms spark a civil war between the predominately Muslim north and the predominately Christian south? Can the country find a compromise that works for all of its diverse population? Expect these question to be repeatedly asked in the media over the next few weeks, but for now, don’t expect any easy answers.

Originally published on Foreign Policy Blogs