Why can't Nigeria defeat Boko Haram?

Burnt vehicles at a church compound in  Nigeria's north-eastern town of Damaturu (picture taken on 8 November) A church compound was one of the targets in Damaturu in Yobe state

Nigeria's Defence Minister Bello Halliru Mohammed says his men are once again "on top" of the security situation in the north - which has seen a spate of attacks by militant Islamist group Boko Haram - and that people have nothing to fear.

But his words may not reassure many.

As last week's bomb and gun attacks in the north-eastern Yobe and Borno states and the earlier explosions in the capital, Abuja, have shown, Boko Haram - once a small religious sect - is now a flexible dynamic organisation capable of changing tactics and targets.

The search for a long-term solution continues. President Goodluck Jonathan's declared policy of "carrot and stick" is supposed to reach out to the militants, while improving security.

But is it in fact muddying the water?

Start Quote

We are in a position now like the United States was in after 9/11”

End Quote Bello Halliru Mohammed Nigeria's defence minister

Many now believe that the heavy military presence in Borno and neighbouring states is the biggest single factor hindering any chance of a negotiated settlement and peace.

Abubakar Kari, a political scientist from the University of Abuja, says he believes Nigeria is still feeling the consequences of the government's attempt to destroy the group in 2009.

Boko Haram's headquarters in Borno state capital Maiduguri was destroyed and their founder and leader Muhammad Yusuf captured and then killed in custody.

Hundreds of members of the group died and ever since it has been attacking government targets in retaliation.

"The rise of Boko Haram is largely as a result of incompetence, lack of foresight and insensitivity from the Nigerian state," Mr Kari said.

Mediation

For the Nigerian security apparatus, Boko Haram's urban guerrilla tactics have represented a new challenge which they have struggled to cope with.

"We are in a position now like the United States was in after 9/11," the defence minister told the BBC.

Map of Nigeria

"You have a new situation and you have to design new strategies and tactics to deal with it."

Initially, Boko Haram's capabilities were limited to drive-by shootings and improvised explosives. But the last few months have changed that.

Suicide bomb blasts in Abuja on the police headquarters in June and the UN headquarters in August - and now the coordinated wave of attacks in Borno and Yobe, which killed more than 100 people, have given further credence to those who believe they are now sharing expertise with other militant groups.

Mr Mohammed would neither confirm or deny reports that Nigerian forces are receiving counter-terrorism training in the United States.

Despite appearances to the contrary he said the government was not, as many believe, pursuing a military solution and that it was looking for a negotiated way out of the crisis.

Respected human rights activist Shehu Sani was involved in the first attempt to talk with Boko Haram.

Boko Haram: Timeline of terror

  • 2002: Founded
  • 2009: Hundreds killed when Maiduguri police stations stormed
  • 2009: Boko Haram leader Mohammed Yusuf captured by army, handed to police, later found dead
  • Sep 2010: Freed hundreds of prisoners from Maiduguri jail
  • Dec 2010: Bombed Jos, killing 80; blamed for New Year's Eve attack on Abuja barracks
  • 2010-2011: Dozens killed in Maiduguri shootings
  • May 2011: Bombed several states after president's inauguration
  • June 2011: Police HQ bombed in Abuja
  • Aug 2011: UN HQ bombed in Abuja
  • Nov 2011: Coordinated bomb and gun attacks in Yobe and Borno states

He organized a meeting in September between former President Olusegun Obasanjo and Boko Haram members under a tree in Maiduguri.

For perhaps the first time the group clearly articulated their demands directly.

"Boko Haram said they wanted their leaders who have been kept in captivity to be released," he said, "And they want justice done for their members that were killed and they also want the military to withdraw from Maiduguri."

Mr Sani said that they had made it clear that they were not fighting for an Islamic state, ruled by Sharia law but because of what they see as the injustice that has been done to them.

For those hoping for a negotiated solution, that will come as a relief.

The mediation stalled when one of Boko Haram's interlocutors was killed shortly after the meeting, but Mr Sani remains optimistic that given the right attitude from the government they could restart.

'Reward Boko Haram'

Opposition parties and in particular those in the north, such as the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), say the government is underestimating the amount of support Boko Haram has among the population.

Start Quote

Why didn't the president crush the Niger Deltans? That's a questions a lot of people in this part of the country are asking”

End Quote Bubu Galadima Congress for Progressive Change

CPC national secretary Bubu Galadima said many people in the north felt marginalized and excluded from wealth and opportunity.

"The people are sympathetic to certain principles and ideas," he told the BBC.

"If people feel they are being denied anything or an injustice is being meted out to them then there is a likelihood that they will take the law into their own hands and help themselves."

Mr Galadima, who is from near Damaturu, where last week's attack took place, raised the case of the former militants from the oil-rich Niger Delta who were given generous financial packages from the government to keep them out of trouble.

"Why didn't the president crush the Niger Deltans? That's a questions a lot of people in this part of the country are asking," he said.

"Instead they are being rewarded for the economic destruction they brought Nigeria. Why can't the same be true for Boko Haram?"

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