Knee-jerk reactions must be avoided, and policy responses must ensure all Nigerians feel protected and valued
The bombing of the UN building in Abuja is part of a worrying trend inNigeria over the last year. With responsibility apparently being claimed by local Islamic extremist group Boko Haram, it is the first such attack aimed at an international organisation, and possibly to provoke a counter-productive international security response. This UN building is situated in Abuja’s relatively secure diplomatic zone. As a sanctions inspector I worked there on number of occasions – one of hundreds of Nigerian and international staff who use this busy office on a daily basis. I never thought I’d be analysing a bombing of it.
Boko Haram was formed by Muslim cleric Mohammed Yusuf in 2002, in Maiduguri. Until 2009 it was known as a peaceful movement, but this changed in June that year with a short-lived uprising aimed at establishing an Islamic state in northern Nigeria. The Nigerian security forces responded fiercely, leaving over 800 dead in a month, including Mohammed Yusuf.
After a brief respite, during which surviving members regrouped, from January 2010 Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for a spate of bombings and shoot-and-run attacks. A Boko Haram spokesperson told reporters this June that members had received training in Somalia. This claim followed a car bomb attack on Nigeria’s police headquarters that left at least six people dead. Several people were also killed by a bomb blast at a bar near a barracks in Abuja over New Year. It is not just Abuja that suffers bomb attacks. Previous attacks claimed by Boko Haram have targeted police stations and other targets in various northern states of Nigeria.
Even with Boko Haram claiming apparent responsibility, blame needs to attributed cautiously given Nigeria’s byzantine house of mirrors politics. This huge country contains multiple groups and individuals who use violence to attain their goals, often hiding behind each other, and true culprits are rarely caught. Since December, two bomb blasts disrupted political rallies in the southern city of Yenagoa wounding several people. Bomb attacks in the city of Jos, a flashpoint between Nigerian Christians and Muslims, left 80 people dead over Christmas. A different Islamist group said it was behind these attacks. Last October at least 12 people were killed in explosions in Abuja as the country celebrated 50 years of independence from the UK. This attack was the most serious so far claimed by militants from the Niger delta who have carried out numerous attacks in the past.
The Nigerian government is often accused of responding indiscriminately to such attacks in a manner likely to feed into the rhetoric of rebellion against repression upon which anti-government groups and individuals depend. Boko Haram became a substantial threat after its founder was mysteriously killed whilst in police custody. The damage made by such actions was acknowledged recently through a public apology by a number of northern Nigerian leaders to Boko Haram for the crackdown that led to these deaths. Such is the complexity of Nigerian politics.
The roots of Boko Haram, as is common with other such groups, lie in the increasing sense of marginalisation on the part of communities in the north of Nigeria. The recent election of a Christian, southern president, Goodluck Jonathan, has fed this resentment, and many observers claim the president does not so far appear to be addressing this discontent adequately. Nigeria has huge potential, with a large population and growing commercial sector. This makes it all the more important that knee-jerk reactions are avoided now, and that policy responses, both from within Nigeria and without, ensure all Nigerians feel protected and valued, if the aims of the bombers are ultimately to be frustrated.