Boko Haram’s recent, deadly attack on the agricultural college in Gujba, Yobe State has raised some difficult and urgent questions for the Nigerian federal authorities and international community. The most pressing – how and why did this happen – quickly give way to more substantive concerns about the efficacy of the security forces and their counter-terrorism campaign.
Certainly this latest atrocity casts a pall of doubt over the repeated claims of senior military officers and politicians that the war is being won. Especially since this was no isolated incident but the latest in a series of equally grave assaults. When taken alongside the raids on the villages of Benisheik and Dumba in mid-September, and the secondary school in Mamudo in early July, the attack on Gujba speaks not of a group that is struggling to survive but of one that is thriving.
Indeed, it must be remembered that these assaults were launched in a period of unprecedented security effort. President Jonathan’s declaration of a state of emergency in the three northern states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe in June this year signalled both the Federal Government’s determination and desperation. In making it, Jonathan not only admitted that Boko Haram was a much more serious problem than Abuja had previously owned up to, but that Nigeria was now a failed state since there were parts of the north that lay beyond the Federal Government’s direct control.
This declaration also carried significant political risks for President Jonathan personally. For in addition to conceding that Nigeria had failed on his watch, he granted extraordinary powers to a military with a long history of overthrowing civilian governments and added further fuel to the already incendiary debate about his ability as a southerner to adequately deal with this very northern problem.
Despite the extraordinary efforts of the security forces, Boko Haram appears unbowed and its campaign undimmed. Since its renaissance following the near terminal battle of Maiduguri in the summer of 2009, the group has been on an upward trajectory. Over the past three years it has embraced ever more ambitious goals (from encouraging northern Muslims to live more piously to turning Nigeria into an Islamic state), extended its area of operations (attacking targets as far south as Abuja), lengthened its list of targets (there is now no-one it is not prepared to kill), and developed its operational capabilities (its 2011 assault on the UN was the first suicide bombing ever carried out in the country).
Arguably these latest attacks mark the next stage in the group’s evolution and offer vital and disturbing insights into how it might develop over the coming weeks and months. The assaults on Gujba, Benisheik, Dumba and Mamudo not only confirm many of the group’s earlier developments but also Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) growing influence over it. For these atrocities bear many striking similarities to those carried out by AQIM and its various forbears in Algeria in the mid-1990s and less regularly since.
For a start, there is the lack of discrimination. The vast majority of the more than 250 people killed in these attacks were Muslim, and many were adolescents and children. Then there is the modus operandi of the attackers. At Benisheik, as was the case on many occasions in Algeria, the assailants wore military fatigues. This detail is significant for the possibilities it holds out – that Boko Haram fighters are impersonating security personnel and have the means to do so; that the group has serving soldiers in its ranks; that there is active collusion between the faction and certain military units or commanders.
These questions have never been properly answered in Algeria and have certainly helped worsen the Algerian military’s reputation and relationship with the civilian population. So much so, that the effectiveness of successive governments’ counter-terrorism strategies has been undermined, and the process of post-conflict social reconciliation made more difficult.
Finally, there is the pitilessness and extreme violence of these attacks. Many of the victims suffered acutely at the hands of their assailants. Of the 46 students who died in the raid on the school at Mamudo, a significant number were burned to death in their dormitories. Of the 44 who were murdered at Dumba, the majority had their throats slit. Again throat cutting was a favoured method of Algerian insurgents because of its strong symbolism; it is how animals are slaughtered. And some of those who survived at Dumba had their eyes put out.
By increasingly re-enacting what has already happened in Algeria, Boko Haram appears to be committing itself to a similar path to that taken by AQIM and its direct forbears the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) and the Armed Islamic Group (GIA).
The long term consequences of this latest phase of violence will be devastating for northern Nigeria and scarcely any less harmful for the rest of the country. What few educational opportunities there are in the region are being degraded leading to a reduction in the already low levels of literacy and numeracy. Inter-communal tensions are increasing and spreading to the south. Southern discontent at the mounting cost of the counter-terrorism campaign is rising especially since much of the revenue paying for it comes from the oil sector in the Niger Delta.
That Nigeria is now a failed state is beyond question. Whether it can avoided breaking apart remains to be seen.
Dr Jonathan Hill is Senior Lecturer, Defence Studies Department, King’s College London. Author of Nigeria since Independence: Forever Fragile?