This shadowy, brutal and fearless jihadist group, which kidnapped seven French citizens in northern Cameroon last week and has killed thousands of innocents on its native soil, has made a mockery of the once-widespread conviction that no Nigerian on the planet was religious, brave or selfless enough to sacrifice his or her life for a cause.
Even when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a young Nigerian al-Qaida devotee, was caught trying to detonate a bomb on a US-bound flight in 2009, almost every Nigerian I spoke to at the time suspected that he got cold feet and deliberately sabotaged the mission.
The “evidence” that fed this suspicion was that, having boarded the plane in Amsterdam, he sat on it for several hours, started to fiddle around with the bomb he had concealed in his underwear only when Detroit airport was in sight, and then handled the detonation exercise so ineptly that another passenger was able to subdue him fairly easily.
Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city, is in the north-central part of the country. I lived there for 12 years until October 2011. And I witnessed Boko Haram dispelling the above myth, becoming a terrifying force and seriously undermining the public’s confidence in President Goodluck Jonathan.
Boko Haram has notched up some spectacular successes. It has blown up the United Nations building in Abuja. It has gained entry to Abuja’s police headquarters. And its outrages have had an enormous psychological impact on the nation. Many believe the movement is invincible. At one point the Hilton hotel was almost deserted because of fears it would be targeted. Meanwhile, foreign airline crews stopped sleeping over in Abuja and several children were sent abroad to school by frightened parents.
Boko Haram has now stepped up its campaign, with an aggressive and high-profile incursion into foreign territory. On Tuesday the groupreleased a video of the hostages in which the kidnapping was described as retribution for France’s military intervention in Mali.
The borders that separate Nigeria from its neighbours have always been porous. But, until last week’s audacious Cameroonian abduction, the insurgents had restricted their terror campaign to northern Nigeria. The churches they attacked were always in the north. They didn’t venture to the south, where most Nigerian Christians live. But the fear is they may now start to do so. If they are now crossing borders to hunt for expatriate hostages whose capture guarantees them maximum publicity on an international level, might they not also soon make an attempt to similarly expand their activities into southern Nigeria?
Boko Haram has hitherto murdered more fellow Muslims – spiritual leaders included – than “infidels”. But some observers are expecting this to change.
The Nigerian government participated in the assault on Malian Muslim rebels trying to halt the spread of fundamentalism in West Africa – and in so doing, deprive Boko Haram of one of its recruiting and training grounds and arms supply routes. But it is difficult to predict whether the desired results can be achieved and sustained.
Meanwhile, Muslim Nigerians from the north are as concerned about the Boko Haram threat as Nigerians in the south. According to Hassan Mohammed, a judge from the north-east: “It is laughable to describe these characters as pro-north or as defenders of Islam. They are evil anarchists who have not only killed almost every imam in the Maiduguri area, but are hellbent on eliminating our political and traditional rulers as well.”
And he adds: “The northern elite is often accused of being in cahoots with Boko Haram … but nothing could be further from the truth. Why would we stupidly support terrorists who treat us like hated opponents and are always trying to kill us?”
Some believe Boko Haram is partly about hungry, angry, unemployed northern boys saying “enough is enough” in a country that is lamentably corrupt, with the privileged callously ignoring the poor. But Nigeria, sadly, is not going to become an oasis of enlightenment any time soon; and if a relatively sophisticated country such as Britain took decades to neutralise the IRA, it may take Nigeria at least as long to bring the homicidal and suicidal guerrilla fighters of Boko Haram to heel.
Boko Haram is a strange, amorphous, hydra-headed beast that is feeding off Nigeria’s many problems and grievances and has just demonstrated that it is willing and able to spread its terror campaign to new regions. Many people are pessimistic about it being vanquished in the forseeable future.