A year ago, the world was focused on a young Nigerian man who had packed explosives into his underwear and tried to blow up a transatlantic flight over Michigan on Christmas Day. But as he was not trained in Nigeria (in fact, Yemen, which is much more commonly associated with terrorist threats), and as he was not “typical” of those considered at risk for falling in with terrorists (he was nicknamed the “Trust-Fund Terrorist”) the world’s eye soon turned away from Nigeria as a big terrorism risk. At present, though he may have been an unrelated outlier, this response is starting look have looked premature unfortunately…
October 1, twin car bombs go off in the midst of a re-election rally for President Jonathan:
All that was left of two cars packed with explosives was their smouldering chassis after they had been blown up on October 1st near Eagle Square in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, while surrounded by unsuspecting citizens celebrating the 50th anniversary of their country’s independence. At least 12 people died and dozens were injured in this year’s most worrying act of political violence. A well-known rebel group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), which is most active in the oil-producing south, claimed responsibility but blamed the government for the deaths, insisting that it had ignored back-channel warnings given 24 hours before the blasts.
The attacks took place close to President Goodluck Jonathan, as he was reviewing a parade a few hundred yards away in front of invited dignitaries. Shortly before the bombings he had declared: “There is certainly much to celebrate: our freedom, our strength, our unity and our resilience.”
The attack in Abuja is unlikely to be the last act of political violence in Nigeria before the poll. The country’s police say they foiled a similar attack in September.
Christmas Eve bombings spark riots:
Clashes broke out between armed Christian and Muslim groups near the central Nigerian city of Jos on Sunday, a Reuters witness said, after Christmas Eve bombings in the region killed more than 30 people.
Buildings were set ablaze and people were seen running for cover as the police and military arrived on the scene in an effort to disperse crowds. Injured people covered in blood were being dragged by friends and family to hospital.
The unrest was triggered by explosions on Christmas Eve in villages near Jos, capital of Plateau state, that killed at least 32 people and left 74 critically injured.
December 29, Islamist group explodes two bombs in the Delta Region at a political rally:
Bombs hit a political rally in a southern Nigerian city on Wednesday, a day after three people were shot and killed in the north of the country, as tensions rose before a series of elections next year. The two bombs exploded in the Niger Delta, the heartland of Africa’s largest oil and gas industry, and the police said they caused injuries but no deaths. Boko Haram, a radical Islamist group, was believed to be behind the killing of the three people on Tuesday, the police said. The victims, including a senior police officer, were killed when men fired shots in a teaching hospital in the northeastern city of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State.
There are two relatively distinct political problems in Nigeria that could involve terrorism: a north/south geopolitical and cultural divide and the ongoing Niger Delta conflict. While the problem of internecine violence between those identifying with the country’s north and those identifying with the south has been a lengthy one, there is some question as to whether it is taking on a more terroristic edge.
From the article on the Christmas Eve bombings and subsequent riots, some background on the divide:
The governor of Plateau state has said the bombings were politically motivated terrorism, aimed at pitting Christians against Muslims to start another round of violence.
Christians, Muslims and animists from a patchwork of ethnic groups live peacefully side by side in most Nigerian cities.
But hundreds of people died in religious and ethnic clashes at the start of the year in the central Middle Belt and there are fears politicians could try to stoke such rivalries as the elections approach.
The tensions are rooted in decades of resentment between indigenous groups, mostly Christian or animist, who are vying for control of fertile farmlands and for economic and political power with mostly Muslim migrants and settlers from the north.
This divide has worsened with the recent political crisis – much discussed on this blog – that resulted in the succession of Goodluck Jonathan to the presidency earlier this year. Following the previous president’s declining health and eventual death in office, (southern) Vice President Goodluck Jonathan assumed the Nigerian presidency for the remainder of his (northern) predecessor’s term and announced his intention to seek his own term in the coming presidential election, thereby disrupting the delicate, internally-negotiated balance struck in the previous presidential ticket to follow a southern president with a northern president and southern vice president. When the two car bombs were detonated simultaneously at the re-election campaign rally for President Jonathan in October, killing dozens of civilians, there was some degree of panic in the government initially, given that this was a new kind of violence in the country (The Economist, “A bloody election omen”). Mass civilian casualties and simultaneous attacks have been the hallmark of al Qaeda and those it inspires, while car bombs have been a feature of al Qaeda of Mesopotamia specifically. However – and this is noteworthy because it shows just how little global terrorism has been seen as a concern in West Africa and Nigeria in particular to this point – the government immediately identified this as internal terrorism, i.e. carried out by Nigerians on Nigerians, without regard to a global agenda. There was some confusion over the origin of the attacks as some of the Niger Delta rebels denied responsibility. The conclusion, therefore, was that the north-south divide was the reason for the attack against Jonathan supporters, and that it had assumed a frightening dimension. However, the current leadership of the well-known Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta claimed responsibility for the attack after all. The government moved to respond in early December, deploying the military and, according to rebel groups in the Delta, killed a hundred militants in the first day of a major operation against them (Associated Press).
Terrorism, in the pre-al Qaeda sense (that is to say not intentionally aiming for mass casualties), is not new to Nigeria because of the Niger Delta conflict alluded to earlier…The problem of the Niger Delta is that it is ethnically diverse and marginal (i.e. the ethnic groups tend to be small and localized compared to the dominant groups in the rest of the country) and certainly economically marginalized from the rest of the country. Resentment and resultant separatism have flourished through decades of oppression at the hands of the military regimes that preceded democratization and the economic abuse of oil companies that has persisted into the democratic era as royalties continue to flow out of the delta and into the hands of the government where it does not return as investment in the delta people. Left with few options, some delta peoples have tried peaceful civil disobedience or simple theft of oil and sabotage of pipelines, as a means of drawing attention to their marginal status. (I’ll simplify by referring to an earlier post for a more detailed, complex view of the interaction between the people and the oil companies.) The destructive activity against pipelines has been construed as terrorism, although it has generally not targeted civilians.
If the MEND was, in fact, responsible for the car bombing deaths of civilians in the capital back in October, this is a reprehensible shift for a group that has previously generally focused on military/governmental/oil company targets, and it would mark the start of a new era of terrorism in Nigeria. Combine this with recent attacks that were allegedly political or religious in nature, relating to the north/south divide as opposed to the ongoing Delta problems, and we have a wave in the making just at the approach of a crescendo in an election season that is likely to be even more contentious than usual. It might be too early to identify a real trend, but it would seem there is one emerging, sadly. We can hope the attacks end with Election Day, January 22, but given how fraught the last one was, it would be unrealistic to expect that outcome. And with MEND adopting the new tactics, and a military playing bloody wackamole with them without fixing the underlying Delta problems, it’s even less likely.
This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.