John Campbell

Africa in Transition

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

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A Nigerian Rubicon or More of the Same?

by John Campbell
April 22, 2013

A soldier walks past the scene of a bomb explosion in Nigeria's northern city of Kaduna December 7, 2011. (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters) A soldier walks past the scene of a bomb explosion in Nigeria's northern city of Kaduna December 7, 2011. (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters)

Over the weekend, fighting in the northern Nigerian border town of Baga killed at least 185, according to the New York Times and Nigerian media. The magnitude of the killings leads the Times to conclude that a Rubicon of sorts has been crossed: “The assault marks a significant escalation in the long-running insurgency Nigeria faces in its predominately Muslim north, with Boko Haram extremists mounting a coordinated assault on soldiers using military-grade weaponry.”

In fact, with the exception of its magnitude, much about Baga is achingly familiar. A high percentage of the victims appear to have been women, children, and the elderly, and many deaths were caused by fire—Baga is burned to the ground, according to Nigerian media. While the insurgents fired rocket-propelled grenades, soldiers sprayed machine-gun fire into civilian neighborhoods, according to residents quoted in the Nigerian media. But, the military commander claims the deaths are the responsibility of “Boko Haram,” because the insurgents fired on the soldiers from among civilians. The military, apparently, responded by burning down the town.

It remains unclear who the insurgents were. The insurrection in northern Nigeria is highly diffuse. Further, Baga is on Lake Chad, which borders Niger, and Chad, and Cameroon. Given the porosity of the borders, the insurgents could have crossed into Nigeria, and it would be relatively easy to procure relatively sophisticated weapons. Given the isolation of Baga, my working hypothesis is that the insurgents and their grievances  are essentially local. But the security services’ response is likely to alienate the local people from the federal government. According to the Nigerian media, two thousand houses were destroyed as well as sixty-four motorcycles and forty automobiles. The small number of automobiles and motorcycles is an indication of Baga’s poverty. It is described as a “fishing” town. But, Lake Chad has been shrinking for decades because of desertification.

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  • Posted by Chike Chukudebelu

    “But the security services’ response is likely to alienate the local people from the federal government.”

    The Federal Government is used to “alienated citizens”. I grew up in Nigeria and still live there. They don’t see “alienation” as a burning platform issue, the main focus of the Federal Government has always been to maintain order (the way they see it) – and sadly, a few dead elderly people & children will not bother them.

    This story is eerily similar to Zaki Biam and Odi. And if the Federal Government was bothered about the “alienation” of Igbos after the Civil War, it did not show it.

    A foreign journalist described Nigeria as “not a society, but a collection of individuals fending for themselves”. Overlaying this is a corrupt government, whose main focus is to maintain some semblance of order in order to access the wealth of the Niger Delta.

    This event, as bloody as it is, isn’t the most bloody event in the recent past. A little over a year ago, close to two hundred people were killed in Kano, more than hundred were burnt to death by suicide bombers in a bus terminal in Kano a couple of months ago, thousands have been killed in inter-communal clashes in the Middle Belt.

    Life goes on – but foreign analysts still adopt a “Western-centric” framework in analyzing Nigeria. Decades of violence must have some impact on our psyche and this must explain why Nigeria still endures in some form (no Western nation can experience the level & intensity of violence in Nigeria & remain as a single entity).

    P.S: Borno State (the epicenter of Boko Haram) has a Christian population of anywhere between 30 – 40%, if Nigeria has a future, it has a future as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation, not the “predominantly North and largely Christian South” of Western journalist’s/analyst’s fantasies.

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