The murder of Saturday lunchtime shoppers in a Nairobi shopping centre grabbed global headlines. This was unsurprising: it was a savage attack on scores of innocent families, which took place in a totemic symbol of Kenya’s success. The victims included the President’s nephew, a prominent radio presenter, a celebrated poet and children at a cooking contest.
Yet there is minimal attention to similar horrors taking place with sickening regularity in the north of Nigeria, where another gang of extremists are gunning down and blowing up people in the name of twisted religious beliefs. Perhaps it is because these victims are often poor Muslims rather than rich Christians – but this is a cruel conflict that cries out for more attention since it is corroding a region of crucial strategic importance.
In the latest outrage, Boko Haram shot dead at least 40 students at an agricultural college as they slept in their dormitory beds. These young people are the latest victims of a conflict that has killed close to 4,000 people over the past four years. Two weeks ago, 159 people were dragged from cars and murdered on a major highway by militants masquerading as Nigerian soldiers. Christian preachers have been beheaded, school children have been slaughtered as they sat exams, families ripped apart.
So who are Boko Haram? The truth is no one fully knows, although it has been around for a decade. The group’s original leader was killed in police custody, it has a complicated cellular structure and it is thought to have split recently into rival factions. It has been compared, not least by the United States military that is ramping up its presence in Africa, to Somalia’s al-Shabaab – the militants behind the Westgate massacre – and al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb. But for all the hype, there is little hard evidence of links between these terror gangs.
What is clear is that for the past four years Boko Haram has been talking the language of jihad and waging a vicious form of civil war against the Nigerian state. It is mostly active in the north of the nation, which is predominantly Muslim and significantly poorer than the south, although it has bombed the capital Abuja several times. The attacks are focused on the police, the army, churches and, most agonisingly, on schools; its name translates as “Western education is sinful” and in one month alone it drove 10,000 children from education by burning down a dozen schools in Maiduguri.
In May, President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in three north-eastern states and ordered a military operation to quash the insurgency. There is minimal support for the militants; many Muslims in the region belong to moderate sects. But after a brief lull in atrocities, the attacks flared up again and in recent weeks have intensified.
The big fear is the army’s brutal tactics of burning down thousands of homes, torturing scores of suspects and summarily executing people may have only served to inflame, rather than dampen down, the problems in Nigeria’s troubled north.