A recent column in this series reported an assault by the Nigerian army on Baga on 16-17 April 2013, a town close to the border with Chad and an alleged site of Boko Haram rebels. The reported death-toll was over 180, with scores injured. In addition, large parts of the town - including as many as 300 houses - had been burned down by the army (see "Al-Qaida, the next stage", 25 April 2013)
In the aftermath, if not perhaps in direct retaliation, Boko Haram paramilitaries staged a co-ordinated pre-dawn attack in the town of Bama on 7 May 2013. A major operation by Boko Haram standards, this lasted for five hours and involved some 200 armed personnel attacking a barracks and a prison (from which 105 prisoners were released). The paramilitaries torched police and public buildings, such as the local magistrates' court, and killed twenty-two police officers, fourteen prison warders, two soldiers and four civilians, losing thirteen of their own before withdrawing (see "'Many dead in Boko Haram attack' in Borno state", BBC News, 7 May 2013).
The cycle of military attack on Baga and Boko Haram's answer in Bama is part of a pattern of accelerating violence which has seen nearly 4,000 people killed since 2009-10. A significant aspect of this conflict is the rigidity of the army and police in dealing with Boko Haram. Nigeria's government may talk of negotiations and even of reconciliation, but on the ground a relentless counterinsurgency operation is underway in which the security forces are killing hundreds of people.
Many incidents take place around Boko Haram's heartland of support, the city of Maiduguri, like Bama in Borno state in northeast Nigeria. At their core is the systematic detention of presumed Boko Haram supporters, many of them later eliminated in custody. There are regular claims that young men have been rounded up on the scantiest of evidence before being shot, tortured or left to die of starvation. Some reported cases speak of men being packed and locked in armoured personnel-carriers, where they suffocate to death in stifling heat.
An experienced journalist in Maiduguri reports that as many as sixty bodies are being delivered each day by the army to the morgue at the state hospital. In one case, twenty-nine bodies were on the point of being dumped when it was discovered that three of them were still alive; soldiers in the army's joint task force (JTF) immediately shot them dead (see Adam Nossiter, “Bodies Pour In as Nigeria Hunts for Islamists”, New York Times, 7 May 2013).
Boko Haram's own operations have often been brutal, but it is clear that the Nigerian military is guilty of extensive atrocities. The fundamental issue is that the army has become gripped by a pattern of behaviour that has developed a momentum of its own, and may be beyond the control of central government. This has three consequences, two of which are international.
A spreading war
The first consequence, internal to Nigeria, is that persistent state violence is having no evident effect in controlling Boko Haram's growth. The movement remains able to stage a large operation of the kind mounted in Bama, while maintaining its level of support. Indeed, the army's frequent killing of young men unconnected to Boko Haram increases antagonism to the army and government in a way that serves the group's purposes.
The second consequence goes wider. Boko Haram wants to promote radical Islamism within Nigeria and oppose western values, but so far has not to any great extent embraced al-Qaida's global jihadist outlook (by, for example, invoking a “far enemy” that requires a war beyond Africa). The Ansaru offshoot of Boko Haram, however, does view the struggle in Nigeria in global terms, leading it to advocate (and engage in) kidnappings and some killing of foreigners. The more that Nigeria's army uses intense violence against the communities from which Boko Haram and Ansaru have grown, the more likely it is that the next phase of their radicalisation will become more transnational.
The third consequence is the impact of Nigeria's conflict on impressionable young Muslims abroad (including in the Nigerian diaspora), who may come to see what is happening there as part of a worldwide assault on Islam. This view may be very simplistic, but it draws on a powerful narrative that highlights three regime terminations in a dozen years (in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya) and direct western intervention in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Sudan and Mali.
This narrative is assiduously fostered by skilled propagandists who represent the conflict in Nigeria as yet another assault on Muslims by a secular-Christian government. Here, the new social media are a vital tool; for coverage of the war in the Nigerian media (and occasionally in the western) is far exceeded by the distribution of graphic visual data of the Nigerian military's impact.
The latter can include images of burned villages and corpses dumped outside a hospital morgue. The accompanying interpretation links the notion of sustained and brutal repression to the Nigerian state's dependency on western patrons such as Britain and the United States. The claim that a new US drone-base in neighbouring Niger will be used to mount attacks in Nigeria, whether true or not, is the kind of charge that will strike a chord with viwers primed to believe it by copious images of previous drone operations in Pakistan.
Nigeria's approach to controlling Boko Haram is flawed at just about every level, from the individual to the transnational. The policy fuels the movement's image as defenders of a besieged Islam who have no choice but to resist and to inspire a process of puritan social and spiritual renewal.
So serious is the process of Nigerian army repression leading to even greater empowerment of Boko Haram, that western states closest to the Abuja government would be well advised to urge a change of course. Without the latter, there is a real risk that in the coming decade Nigeria will become a focus of transational jihadist struggle.
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