LONG queues of cars formed along a number of main roads in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, last week. It was not just a petrol shortage after the recent withdrawal of Nigeria’s longstanding fuel subsidy that seemed to be causing the problem.
The relentless search by security officials for explosives and other instruments of death and mutilation favoured by Islamic fundamentalist sect Boko Haram is another reason traffic queues are forming across the otherwise orderly city.
The site of the first significant bombing in Abuja — a brazen attack inside the compound of police headquarters in June last year — was visible from my hotel window. The street outside the compound is lined with armed security men. But their guns may not be enough to protect them from the brazen violence perpetrated by the group, which includes drive-by shootings from cars and motorbikes, as well as suicide bomber attacks.
While we went about our business in the capital during the week, battles between Boko Haram members and security forces were raging in Maiduguri, several hours’ drive to the north, which is the headquarters of the group and the epicentre of the violence.
Boko Haram’s stated goal is to impose Sharia across a country that is made up, almost equally, of Christians and Muslims.
But it seems to have lost its way. Although many of its attacks have been on state facilities, it has also targeted Christian churches and worshippers in Muslim-dominated northern regions in the hope of unleashing religious violence. It has also not spared its Muslim brothers in whose name the so-called battle is being undertaken.
The Nigerian security establishment is struggling to get on top of the problem. Although violent religious clashes have been part of life in some parts of Nigeria for many years, terrorism is something new. Used to tackling uprisings with firepower, the security forces have had to develop greater capability in terms of strategy and intelligence to fight their elusive enemy. They have been assisted in this by some of the best around, including advisers from the US and Israel.
There has been some concern about the complicity of senior government and security officials in Boko Haram’s activities. The prime suspect in the bombing of a Catholic Church near Abuja on Christmas Day, which left dozens of worshippers dead, managed to flee while being transported between detention facilities. The chief of police was immediately suspended and later fired.
Boko Haram is not a new organisation although it has only recently captured the headlines outside Nigeria. It has been a thorn in the side of the government since it was formed in 2002.
The issue came to a head in 2009, when the group stormed police stations in Maiduguri and hundreds were killed. The army captured Boko Haram leader Mohammed Yusuf, who died in detention. Since then, the quest for revenge has overtaken its religious agenda, making the state it loathes the focus of its attacks.
Many Nigerians reject the view that poverty is a driver of this extreme behaviour, saying poor people are everywhere in Nigeria and do not vent their anger by killing people.
The attacks have escalated sharply in recent months but have been focused on local targets. Concern that western targets will start to occupy centre stage, given the group’s supposed links to al-Qaeda, has not been realised, although Boko Haram has threatened to attack telecommunications companies (including MTN) for alleged complicity with security agents in having phone calls traced. The group’s reign of terror, at this stage, is far from the commercial interests of most South African companies.
Life in Nigeria last week looked as it always does — energetic, vibrant, noisy and busy. But despite assurances by key ministers that the problem is not affecting investment, international investors are concerned about how this might play itself out.
Alarmist predictions by outside observers range from civil war to the outright meltdown of the state. Nigerians are more sanguine, despite their anger at and anxiety about the senseless violence. They have been to the brink many times before.
• Games is the CEO of Africa @ Work, a research and consulting company.