DAKAR // The Nigerian military stepped up its response to a radical Islamist group in northern Nigeria yesterday, sending soldiers in armoured personnel carriers into the city of Maiduguri in search of members of an Islamist sect responsible for regional violence. At least 150 people have been killed since Saturday, when members of the Boko Haram group began attacking civilians. They dragged people from cars, launched home-made petrol bombs and surrounded police stations and churches.
Dusk-to-dawn curfews have been imposed in four states in northern Nigeria and the security forces have surrounded the hideout of the group's leader, the cleric Mohammed Yusuf. The army shelled parts of the compound, including a small mosque. At least 30 people were killed yesterday in a fresh gun battle in the northern state of Yobe, police said. "Thirty have so far been killed in Hawan Malka," a police source said. He was referring to an area on the outskirts of Potiskum, Yobe's second largest city.
Kissy Agyeman Togobo, an analyst with the US-based political intelligence group Global Insight, said the sectarian violence was a worrying turn of events for a country long besieged by a virulent militant campaign in the southern Niger Delta region. "Just as the government has been making progress with the situation [in the Niger Delta] by offering amnesty to the militants, and with the prospects for negotiation seemingly less elusive than before, it must now grapple with the emergence of Boko Haram," she said.
Security forces have been authorised to use all necessary means to contain the violence, but Ms Agyeman Togobo said the abuse of these wide-reaching powers could trigger a backlash. Boko Haram, which translates as "western education is a sin" in the national Hausa dialect, has threatened to overthrow the government in its quest for a ban on all western-style education in Nigeria. It wants to see national adherence to the Islamic law introduced in 12 of Nigeria's 36 states in 2000.
The group first made waves in 2004 when radicals set up camp close to Nigeria's border with Niger. In a nod to the long beards and turbans of its members, locals were quick to dub the group "the Taliban" and refer to the camp as "Afghanistan". Although their recruitment style mirrors that of radical groups operating in Asia, there is no known link to the Taliban in Afghanistan or, indeed, any other Islamist faction.
Even in Nigeria's predominately Muslim north, the group has few sympathisers, and numbers only a few thousand in a country of 150 million. Abdulkarim Mohazu, the secretary general of Nigeria's Jama'atul Nasril Islam, an umbrella body of Muslims in the country, told Agence France-Presse yesterday that the violence was unfortunate and the sect an embarrassment to Muslims. "Had we known these people, we would have asked their leaders to show us which part of the Quran says western education is a sin. We hope the government can help us find these people so we can talk to them."
Analysts say the government is fearful of an escalation of violence that could lead to a greater economic and education gap between the north and south. Northern Nigeria, which is less developed than the resource-rich south, is prone to tensions and has a history of religious conflict. In the early 1980s, the region erupted into violence led by a radical Muslim preacher who opposed secular authority. More than 4,000 people were killed in 10 days of rioting.
The perpetrators of the latest attacks are followers of Mr Yusuf, a 33-year old radical who proclaims that the pursuit of secular knowledge is contrary to Islam. He is calling for the abolition of colleges, universities and all non-Islamic primary and secondary schools in northern Nigeria. Mr Yusuf has said he only has faith in Islam, not science. The group purports to reject technology, biology and geology, arguing that science and religion are mutually exclusive. He also alleges that a western-style education leads to an unnecessarily lavish lifestyle.
But on the streets of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state and the town that has taken the brunt of the violence, Mr Yusuf's Mercedes-Benz is a frequent sight. When locals refer to Mr Yusuf as "crazy", it is not just because of the attacks he has orchestrated; it is because, it is said, he has two university degrees and sends his children to western-style schools. Analysts say Boko Haram's thirst for money and power is stronger than its appetite for inter-faith conflict.
"They're not passionate about this goal" of wiping out western education, said Shola Adeniran, an adviser on Nigeria for the Royal African Society in London. "It's a power struggle." Mr Adeniran said the group is copying the philosophy of such groups as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta. "That group contains itself to such an extent that its ability to do business is not compromised," he said. In other words, the movement's tactics allow the group to stay intact. It usually releases kidnap victims unharmed but still retains enough political clout to pose a threat.
"Other groups, like the Boko Haram, realise [that] by organising themselves and arming themselves, they can extort political patronage and money from the government," he said. firstname.lastname@example.org