from Africa in Transition

Boko Haram Attacking Nigeria’s Mobile Phone Infrastructure

September 11, 2012

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Sub-Saharan Africa

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Terrorism and Counterterrorism

This Day is reporting that Boko Haram operatives are staging "unrelenting" attacks on the telecommunications infrastructure, especially in the states of Borno, Yobe, Bauchi, Gombe, and Kano, Nigeria’s second largest city. It reports that members of the Association of Licensed Telecommunications Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), principally MTN, GLO, Airtel, and Etisalat, are threatening to suspend telecommunications services in the North. An ALTON spokesperson said at least twenty-five base stations belonging to its members have been destroyed, many of them hubs. A spokesman said that a base station costs between N500 million and N1 billion ($3 million-$6 million).

In effect, Nigeria has leapfrogged over telephone land lines to mobile phones. The conventional wisdom is that there are some ninety million cell phones in Nigeria, though multiple cell phone ownership is common and it is unclear how many people can afford the prepaid cards that are required. Nevertheless, the widespread use of cell phones is often cited by outsiders who are bullish about the economic future of Nigeria, and internet cafes are to be found all over the country. It is also unclear how many telecommunications users are in the North -- most cell phones are to be found in other regions of the country -- and how widespread the disruption in communication has been. This Day restricts its comment to "communication in the states through cell phones has been disrupted."

It is unclear what the goal of these attacks is, beyond accusations that the cell companies are helping security services track the group. Boko Haram’s "martyred" founder, Mohammed Yusuf, did not reject modern technology, and, presumably, Boko Haram operatives also use cell phones.  If attacks on cell phone infrastructure continue, and if ALTON members do suspend service, the consequences will be dire for outside communication with the North. In a region characterized by high unemployment, the collapse of manufacturing and too little investment in agriculture, destruction of communication facilities can only make things worse for most people.