Extremism in Nigeria: Africa's great unreported bloodletting

The sophisticated weaponry flooding into the country has enabled Boko Haram to step up the ferocity of its attacks

Lagos

At first, the Islamic extremists in Nigeria's dusty north-east rode on the backs of motorcycles, firing on government officials and other perceived enemies with worn Kalashnikovs hidden beneath their flowing robes. Now, they come prepared for war.

When Islamic fighters drove into a town in north-eastern Nigeria last week, they used anti-aircraft guns, mounted on the backs of trucks, to destroy nearly every landmark of the nation's federal government. Fighters also rode in on at least one bus, the military said, while in other assaults insurgents have fired rocket-propelled grenades.

The militarisation of Islamic radicals in the north comes after witnesses saw Nigerian fighters mingle with the extremists who took over northern Mali in the weeks following a coup there. It also comes after fighters seized massive deposits of Nigerian military equipment and have gained access to arms smuggled out of the lawlessness of Libya.

Those new arms, and the willingness of extremists to use them, highlight the increasing instability in Nigeria's north and the ever-growing dangers facing the nation's weak central government. With dozens dead in other incidents in the past few days, the violence in this country is mounting, but has yet to make headlines in the West. This is, in ways that Mali – with the intervention of French troops – was not, Africa's great silent bloodletting.

"Each year, they grow in prominence and sophistication," said David Zounmenou, an analyst at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa. "That's what's making the fighting that much more difficult for the Nigerian security forces."

The sophistication of the fighters, who are most likely from the extremist network Boko Haram, could be seen in their assault on Bama, a town some 40 miles south-east of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state. The military said some 200 fighters in buses and pickup trucks laid siege to the town. In their arsenal were truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns, weapons seen during the civil war in Libya and the recent fighting in northern Mali.

That attack in Bama killed at least 42 people, as well as 13 others that authorities described as Boko Haram fighters. The insurgents' heavy weapons helped them overrun the barracks of the Nigerian army's 202nd Battalion, as well as a police station, a police barracks, a magistrate's court, local government offices and a federal prison. The extremist fighters freed 105 prisoners during their assault, a Nigerian military spokesman, Lt-Col Sagir Musa, said.

The use of such weapons marks a transformation of Nigeria's Islamist insurgency, which grew out of a riot in 2009 led by Boko Haram members in Maiduguri. That ended in a military and police crackdown that killed 700 people. The group's leader died in police custody in an apparent execution-style murder, fuelling dissent that broke into the open in 2010 with the targeted killings of government officials, security agents and religious leaders who spoke out against Boko Haram.

Since then, Islamists have engaged in hit-and-run shootings and suicide bombings, attacks that have killed at least 1,618 people, according to an Associated Press count. That number doesn't include the killing in April this year of at least 187 people in the fishing village of Baga during fighting between extremists and security forces, as witnesses and human rights activists said Nigeria's military killed civilians and burned thousands of homes and businesses.

Casualties are expected to rise as the extremists now have access to sophisticated weaponry. While in the past decade Nigeria's military has fought against heavily armed militants and criminal gangs operating in the creeks of its oil-rich southern delta, analysts and security officials say those groups never had access to anti-aircraft weapons. Nor did those groups launch attacks on military barracks, or level towns.

Where the weaponry has come from also remains unclear. A propaganda video released in March by Boko Haram, featuring its leader, Abubakar Shekau, showed fighters gathered around weapons they said they had stolen from an attack on an army barracks. Those weapons included what appeared to be heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and possibly anti-aircraft weapons, as well as ammunition and brand-new bulletproof vests.

Another source of tactics and weapons may come from northern Mali, where Nigerian extremists had joined the fighting.

"Boko Haram will also likely recruit militants who fought and obtained new skills from warfare in Mali," wrote the analyst Jacob Zenn in a recent publication by the Combating Terrorism Center at the US Army's West Point. "The Boko Haram attack on an army barracks in Monguno... in which the militants mounted weapons on four-wheel drive vehicles, and the discovery of improvised fighting vehicles in a raid on a Boko Haram hideout in Maiduguri... suggest that Boko Haram has already learned new methods of fighting from the Islamist militants in Mali."

Abubakar Shekau is a shadowy figure, now seen mainly in propaganda footage released by the group. Part theorist and part hoodlum, the former theology student is known to be taciturn, but other details remain murky. Even his age – said sometimes to be 34, on other occasions to be nearer 43 – is a matter of conjecture. And even his very existence has been disputed, as Nigerian authorities believed that he had been killed in 2009, only for him to re-emerge in Boko Haram videos.

Meanwhile, arms are likely to continue to come out of Libya from heavily armed militias there, Mr Zounmenou said. He explained that arms can be transported quickly through the Sahara and into West Africa's Sahel to Nigeria, a major shipment stop for illegal weapons.

While Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan has spoken before about the need to control arms shipments throughout West Africa, the trade continues largely unhindered. And as more of those weapons end up in the hands of Islamists in Nigeria's north, more violence can be expected.

"They are now really going to war," Mr Zounmenou said. It is not surprising that on Thursday, the Nigerian President abandoned a much-heralded diplomatic visit to southern Africa to return home to speak to security services about the increased body counts from violence across his nation.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Lou Reed distorted the truth about his upbringing, and since his death in 2013, biographers and memoirists have added to the myths
musicThe truth about Lou Reed's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths
News
people
News
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the Apple Watch for you? Well, it depends if you want it for the fitness tech, or for the style
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own