John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Boko Haram Christmas Bombings

by John Campbell
December 27, 2011

A car burns at the scene of a bomb explosion at St. Theresa Catholic Church at Madalla, Suleja, just outside Nigeria's capital Abuja, December 25, 2011. (Afolabi Sotunde/Courtesy Reuters)


While I had said I would not post again until January 3, I felt this weekend’s attacks in Nigeria warranted a response.

‘Boko Haram’, a highly de-centralized Islamic radical movement, has allegedly claimed responsibility for attacks on Christian churches in an Abuja suburb and elsewhere in the North and the Middle Belt over the Christmas weekend. Reports of incidents and casualties are incomplete. However, estimates of civilian casualties range up to seventy and there are reports that the security services also killed about sixty suspected members of Boko Haram in Yobe state.

While Boko Haram has murdered Christian clergy and attacked churches before, it has primarily targeted representatives of state and federal governments, such as police officers, soldiers,  politicians, and even traditional Muslim leaders.

Boko Haram may be intent on showing Nigerians and the international community that it can make the country ungovernable for President Goodluck Jonathan’s predominately southern Christian administration in Abuja. Attacks on Christian churches on one of the two principal Christian holidays of the year drive that point home and ensured international press attention. For example, some American media paired the attacks with Pope Benedict XVI’s call for peace–thereby introducing Boko Haram to parts of the international community that hitherto had not been paying much attention.

Boko Haram may also seek to demonstrate that it can strike anywhere–and some Western media seem to draw that conclusion. In fact, the Christmas attacks did not take place in areas outside of Boko Haram’s usual theater of operations. Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for attacks in Abuja and Damaturu previously. Similar bombings happened on the Christmas holiday last year in Jos, which has been the center of local and religious and ethnic conflict for a decade, and whose Christian governor is widely unpopular among the state’s Muslim population. Notably, an alleged spokesman for Boko Haram cited revenge for killings of Muslims and the government’s refusal to protect Muslims to justify the bombing.

Boko Haram may seek to provoke retaliatory Christian killings of Muslims outside of the North, thereby promoting the fragmentation of the country. Fringe groups in the Niger Delta have already threatened to kill Northern Muslims living in that region, and the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), the mainstream Christian umbrella group, has said that Christians should “defend themselves.” There is anecdotal evidence that some Northern Muslims living in southern states have returned home out of fear.

Finally, the Christmas attacks may indicate that Boko Haram is increasingly identifying Christianity with the Jonathan government, and possibly with the hated police and security services. A White House spokesman has stated that the United States “pledges to assist” the Nigerian federal government in “bringing those responsible to justice.”

Such identification of the United States with the Jonathan administration may result in Boko Haram attacks on American targets. However, there are few of them to be found in those parts of Nigeria where Boko Haram has operated up to now.

What does Boko Haram want? As a diffuse movement, there is no charismatic leader, no ‘politburo’, and no manifesto. Boko Haram rhetoric is focused on the application off Islamic religious law and justice for the poor. But, it doubtlessly includes nihilistic and criminal elements as well. A common thread appears to be hatred for the secular government in Abuja, certain governors, and parts of the traditional Islamic establishment it sees as having sold out.

It is premature to see the Christmas attacks as more coordinated than those carried out by Boko Haram in the past. Nor do they necessarily indicate enhanced relations between Boko Haram and international jihadist movements, as some commentators are concluding. Boko Haram seems to be financing itself through bank robberies and is arming itself by thefts from government armories and purchases — there is no shortage of weapons on the market in Nigeria. So, it is not necessary to look for a “foreign hand” to account for Boko Haram’s current operations.

Post a Comment 9 Comments

  • Posted by Kumar

    Dear Mr Campbell, while I respect your opinion on Boko Haram, I strongly believe their is more of political elements in BH than the religiouse inclination attached to them. Considering the fact that most of the suspects arrested, convicted and killed by the authorities are political thugs and have lost respects from the Muslim Community at least since after the 2009 war, and the intentions of some people to clinch to power or at a bigger level divide Nigeria, there is no better and easy way to achieve thier goal than to create a religious/ethnic war considering the sharp divide between Muslims and Christians in the North as well as between the North and South. The incidence of Christmas day is total un Islamic and against the teachings and believes of Islam and Muslims. We need to do everything possible create awareness among the citizens to avoid blood shed.

  • Posted by Askia

    Sir, I wonder if you are aware of the widespread belief that the Jonathan administration is lame duck and increasingly incapable of getting to grips with the sectarian dangers posed by Boko Haram. This widespread belief in the shortcoming of the Nigerian government is perhaps even more dangerous than the bombs of Boko Haram

  • Posted by Maduka

    There are many Boko Harams and no one is quite sure what Boko Haram was responsible for this terrible event.

    This could be the work of hired political thugs or terrorists, we are not quite sure. What we know is that a prominent Northern politician promised to make Nigeria “ungovernable” if Jonathan wins the elections.

    In addition, the silence of prominent Northern leaders either signifies that they are afraid or complicit or both. Neither is good.

    A permanent wedge is being driven between Sharia states of Northern Nigeria and the rest of the country. If this continues the far North will be the worst losers.

    The Northern political elite are riding a tiger that will soon devour them.

  • Posted by Gavin Bond

    This was how the Biafran War started. Killings in the North, retaliated by killings in the South, which led to the East pulling out of the federation.

    I think this is the best thing for Nigeria anyway. It should break up into Regions,States, and Districts for self-governing purposes. Check out to see a model in the book.

    It will eliminate Tribalism; each Region /States can have Sharia Laws or whatever they like; and can choose whether they want to be socialist of capitalist or a mix of both ideologies, taking the best parts from both!

    Nigeria has to return to the period of Self-Government we had before independence, before there can be peace in that country!

  • Posted by Lawrence

    Why does Amb. Campbell continously ignore the messages of the leaders of the Boko Haram and clings unto his theory of a fringe group that is diffuse and without a clear mission,strategy or leadership? The age of clear leadership is over in such groups as the AQ and why not the local groups such as Boko Haram. And by the way we do know that a particular spokesman has been speaking on their behalf frequently. The facts stand out clearly. The Boko Haram wants and have stated it several times that what they want is a Sharia state for the whole of Nigeria. There is nothing hidden about this. As to coordination, I am amused by his rather vain dismissal of any relations between Boko Haram and other Jihadist groups in Africa. Finally, why is he not happy that the US government is identifying with the current government of Nigeria in its fight against this group? Is it better to be in denial so as to be politically coorect to certain groups the US would rather be nice to? Are we about to witness another Rwanda-like episode? This attitude does not help matters as terrorism is a global threat and turning a blind eye to such groups from any part of the globe will not be helpful in the long term to the US’s interests. In many ways from the article I feel that Mr Campbell is actually blaming Jonathan and the Christians (South and North) for the islamic radicalization of the north which is anything but the truth. What a shame!

  • Posted by alex abdullahi

    The general perception now that Jonathan has no candou and bereft of idears.indeedn it is doubtful if he truly has the Doctorate following his weak outlook particalarly via his ashes speech performaces.2015 may be a reality as predicted by the USA.!iafra is ready to go, middle belt tear from the north, south south is ready and has been ready to go while oduduwa natio will also glady go.I do not see Jonathant capable of mending this cracked wall.

  • Posted by Brad

    Having lived in Jos and Maiduguri for three and one-half years each (7 total), I’m not reading anyone adequately addressing the northeastern epicenter of the movement. This was allegedly until August 2009 one of the most peaceful locales in Arewa (Hausa for “north”). Nevertheless, once Muhammad Yusuf was summarily executed this unleashed a multifarious conflict. Ultimately, we must seek to build bridges with those majority Arewa Muslims who will extinguish this conflict. The Nigerian government, CAN, and other non-Muslims organizations can only advocate for reform but the authentic innovation to cut off the “fuel” for this clamor for untenable Sharia must come from within. A clear contrast must come from the “umma” unwilling to trade one insane ideology for a perceived insanity.

  • Posted by Kanayo K

    I wonder if Mr Campbell’s arguments and line of thought will hold water if Boko Haram was operating within a city or state in our country(US). Will they be considered as “fragmented, decentralized and a diffuse movement” with “no charismatic leader, no ‘politburo’, and no manifesto?”
    BH is a terrorist organization that has widespread support and sympathy among many northern muslims and jihadists who will like to see “xtians and non indigenes leave the North” and Nigeria turned into a sharia state. Why will BH react to the election of GE Jonathan if not that it has been “activated or instigated to do so to further the agenda of some Northern politicians.
    We heard that the Borno state government paid compensation tot he BH Yusuf’s family. Where is justice for many victims of murder and “ethnic cleansing” especially Ndigbo that occurs annual in cities across the North?
    A more pertinent question is “Why is Boko Haram not designated officially by our State Dept as a terrorist group?

  • Posted by Chika

    Perhaps only if Boko Haram targeted US interests and persons will it be declared a terrorist organization. What, Mr. Ambassador is the difference, both in terms of their espoused ideologies, and violent tactics, between Boko Haram in Nigeria and the terrorist organization Al Shabab in Somalia? I still cannot quite get the politics of the US government on Boko Haram. So let me ask you: how many more bombs, how many more dead innocent civilians, and how much more political instability will Boko Haram cause before they are classified as a terrorist group by western governments and international organization?

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