Nov 6, 2011 2 Comments ›› Pat Dollard
An Islamic militant group in Nigeria’s restive north mounted its most deadly assault yet, a series of bomb and gun attacks over the weekend that killed dozens of people, threatening one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies despite a government security crackdown.
Boko Haram—which seeks to spread Islamic law throughout Nigeria’s impoverished, majority Muslim north—claimed responsibility in a newspaper interview for the attacks, which started Friday and continued through Saturday, in the towns of Damaturu and Patiskum. The group bombed mosques and churches, then staged gunbattles with police, said an aide to President Goodluck Jonathan.
The death toll had climbed above 100 people on Sunday, the Associated Press said, citing the Red Cross. The aide to President Jonathan estimated that at least 69 had been killed.
Violence in Nigeria’s north has intensified in recent months despite government efforts. The weekend hostilities follow the Aug. 26 bombing of a United Nations headquarters in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, that killed 24. Last Tuesday, a special unit of the country’s armed forces began door-to-door inspections to find and seize weapons in Maiduguri, a city that serves as Boko Haram’s base.
“They seem to be one step ahead of us,” said the presidential aide, who asked not to be identified because he isn’t authorized to discuss terrorism. He added: “Security agencies are gathering information that will enable them to catch up.”
The U.S. Embassy said in a statement on its website that Boko Haram may attack hotels in Abuja, citing a tip it didn’t identify.
Escalating violence in Nigeria’s north is looming over government efforts to spur the country’s economy—now growing at 8%—and diversify away from its long dependence on oil production. Mr. Jonathan, a Christian born in the south, remains unpopular in the predominantly Muslim north, and his government’s shaky grip on security may further undermine efforts to push through unpopular measures to shore up its finances. The steps include an attempting to remove a fuel subsidy of 1.2 trillion naira a year, or about $7.6 billion. Its removal would drive up transport costs, which observers say will hurt the poor as well as industry.
On Saturday, Mr. Jonathan issued a statement condemning the violence and vowing to protect Nigerians’ lives and property from further attacks.
Boko Haram has remained defiant in the wake of the government clampdown. It accuses the police of torturing and extrajudicial killings of its members. Islamic militants belonging to the group say police killed the group’s leader while he was in custody in 2009 and have since mounted revenge attacks.
“More attacks are on the way,” Boko Haram spokesman Abul Qaqa said in an interview with the newspaper Daily Trust, based in Abuja. “We will continue attacking federal government formations until security forces stop their excesses on our members and vulnerable civilians,” the paper quoted him as saying.
Nigerian officials and some analysts have speculated that Boko Haram is securing supplies and training from African branches of al Qaeda, pointing to the Nigerian group’s increasing sophistication in using car bombs. Boko Haram members have also received training in making improvised explosive devices, analysts say.
The weekend attacks are believed to be the most deadly mounted by the group thus far. The ferociousness of the group, whose name means “Western education is sin,” has rattled politicians and police alike.
“They seem to be getting bolder and bolder by the day,” said Comfort Ero, director of the Africa program of the International Crisis Group, which seeks to prevent and resolve conflicts. “People are wondering whether Nigeria’s government has the capacity to respond.”
Last month, in an interview with the Daily Trust newspaper, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, the influential founder of Mr. Jonathan’s ruling party, suggested the incumbent president begin dialogue with Boko Haram’s leaders. During his two terms in office, from 1999 to 2007, Mr. Obasanjo repeatedly invited oil separatists into Nigeria’s presidential villa, paving the way for an eventual amnesty program, although many of Nigeria’s oil militants remain active. Oil separatists seek either independence or greater revenue for their oil-rich homeland region in Nigeria.
Corrections & Amplifications
The Nigerian government is attempting to remove a fuel subsidy of 1.2 trillion naira a year, or about $7.6 billion. An earlier version of this article incorrectly gave the amount of the subsidy as $1.2 trillion.