Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram has killed hundreds in an onslaught of attacks that authorities have been unable to stop, prompting growing calls for talks to bring an end to the bloodshed.
The group has long had unclear aims and a structure that is difficult to define, but a number of patterns have emerged in violence attributed to Boko Haram, offering more pieces to a complex puzzle.
Attacks blamed on the group took on a new dimension on January 20, when a siege of Nigeria’s second-largest city of Kano saw coordinated bombings and shootings which killed at least 185 people.
They sparked deep concern as Kano is the economic heart of the mainly Muslim north of Nigeria, Africa’s largest oil producer and most populous nation.
While the precise demands of Boko Haram — considered by many to be a fractured group — are tough to pin down, deep poverty and a sense of injustice in the country’s north are feeding the violence, analysts say.
Security forces have also shown little sign they can end the attacks, leading many to argue that the solution lies in negotiations, possibly by winning over moderate elements, then determining how to deal with hard-core holdouts.
“There has to be dialogue, and the framework for engagement has to be defined,” said Mustapha Zanna, who was a lawyer for Boko Haram members after a 2009 uprising and has also represented ex-leader Mohammed Yusuf’s family.
He said those willing to take part in dialogue must have guarantees that they will not be arrested or worse.
“While the chief of army staff is saying we will crush them, you are on the other hand calling them to come over for dialogue. It doesn’t make sense,” Zanna said.
The perils could be seen in September, when Zanna helped arrange a meeting between ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo and family members of Yusuf, who was killed in 2009, in a bid to end the attacks.
Two days later, Babakura Fugu, Yusuf’s brother in-law and a participant in the meeting, was shot dead by unknown gunmen.
Nigeria’s government has sent mixed signals on whether it is open to dialogue. President Goodluck Jonathan was quoted in an interview this week as saying clear demands from the group are needed as a basis for talks.
At the same time, heavy-handed military raids have failed to stop the violence. Some analysts say such raids have also turned members of the public who would not typically be sympathetic to Boko Haram against authorities.
Olusegun Adeniyi, former spokesperson for late ex-president Umaru Yar’Adua, wrote this week that “we have not seen any display of competence on the part of our security agencies in the efforts to address this growing menace”.
He said a dual strategy of dialogue and law enforcement must be pursued.
“This is therefore the time for men and women of good will from the north who know the Boko Haram leaders to come out and broker a truce in the interest of our nation,” Adeniyi wrote in his column in ThisDay newspaper.
Kyari Mohammed, a university professor who has studied Boko Haram’s activities, said there are signs progress can be made if the right steps are taken.
“I don’t see the government defeating them militarily,” he said. “They need to find some counterinsurgency tactics to try … They will have to find a way of talking to Boko Haram — the various factions of Boko Haram.”
As for the group itself, many believe it has several factions and that criminal gangs and others have also operated under the Boko Haram label.
But the most significant attacks have followed a loose pattern, targeting security agencies and symbols of authority, also occasionally Christians.
They have steadily escalated and grown more sophisticated, and a suicide attack on UN headquarters in Abuja in August that killed 25 people drew the world’s attention.
Its main leader is widely believed to be Abubakar Shekau, who allegedly sent a letter to the Kano state governor in December claiming Boko Haram members had been arrested on false charges and warning of attacks over the issue.
While there has been speculation over whether the group has ties to al-Qaeda’s north African branch, known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or other extremists, there are significant doubts about meaningful links.
There has been evidence that Boko Haram members have sought training in Mali since 2004, but not of operational ties, a Western diplomat said.
“I think there’s evidence of contact [with foreign groups], but in terms of operationally linking up with AQIM or extremist groups elsewhere, we don’t see Boko Haram as an al-Qaeda franchise,” the diplomat said.
The diplomat added that he did not view Boko Haram’s attacks as threatening the break-up of Nigeria, as some have argued.
“I think that clearly the government is faced with a growing insurgency in the north,” the diplomat said.
“I don’t think that threatens the integrity of the Nigerian federal state, nor do I think it risks exploding into some kind of regional conflict … I haven’t seen anything to suggest that Boko Haram has abandoned its purely domestic agenda.” — AFP