Fighting Between Boko Haram Islamists and Nigerian Security Rages On

While the Nigerian military claims that the fighting with Boko Haram in the country's north is under control, the lack of information from the region fuels doubt about the military's success.

Fellows Fall 2011

By David Francis

October 20, 2011

Also published in the Christian Science Monitor

Violence continues to rage across the northern half of Nigeria today, leaving scores dead as members of the Islamic sect Boko Haram clash with the Nigerian military.

Boko Haram "“ whose name translates to "western education is a sin" "“ has become increasingly brazen in its attacks against Nigerian security forces since the group bombed a UN building in Abuja in late August, claiming 23 lives. In response, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan sent the Nigerian Army and Air Force to the country's north, where they have been clashing with Boko Haram following a failed cease-fire.

Over the past week, Boko Haram has stepped up its campaign against the government as well as the people, threatening to send areas of northern Nigeria into a state of war.

On Monday, Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the assassination of Modu Bintube, a member of parliament from Borno state, where much of the fighting has occurred. Mr. Bintube was killed in his home in the state capital city Maiduguri.

On Sunday, the Islamic group detonated bombs at a police station in Gombe, a state in Nigeria's northeast. According to wire reports, police officers and members of the militant group were killed in an ensuing firefight. Both incidents are the latest in a string of violent events staged by Boko Haram after the success of its UN attack.

Meanwhile, the Nigerian military is claiming that the security situation in the north is under control. Speaking in Lagos yesterday, Lt. Gen. Onyeabor Ihejirika, chief of staff of the Nigerian embassy, said that President Jonathan's military operation had eroded popular support for Boko Haram, while capturing of many of the group's leaders.

Ihejirika's claims are almost impossible to verify. Because of the deteriorating security situation, few media outlets are operating in northern Nigeria. Reports that have emerged are fragmented and often based on eyewitness accounts and other circumstantial evidence. The Nigerian public meets government accounts of successful operations against Boko Haram with skepticism.

This skepticism is indicative of a pervasive sentiment among members of the Nigerian media and the country's activist community: Jonathan in grossly incapable of dealing with Boko Haram. His actions have been second-guessed on editorial pages throughout the country, which has led to public pessimism about his handling of the militant group.

"The truth of the matter is that the president had two options," says Shehu Sani, a human right activist here who helped facilitate early dialogue between Jonathan and Boko Haram. "One was to pursue the path of dialogue. The second was to pursue the use of force. It is very clear that people who are advising him to use force are having their way."

Mr. Sani warns that the failure of Nigerian troops to gain control of Boko Haram strongholds in Borno and Gombe could lead to a wide conflict across the north.

"Jonathan made it clear that the military isn't going to stop until Boko Haram agrees to talk, and Boko Haram had made it clear it has no intention to do so," he says. "Now it's an open confrontation between the government and Boko Haram militants."

David Francis reported from Nigeria on a fellowship with the International Reporting Project (IRP).