from Africa in Transition

Boko Haram Attacks Muslim Nigeria’s Preeminent City–Why?

January 23, 2012

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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The horrific Boko Haram attacks over the weekend in Kano have left over two hundred dead. The attacks were on police stations and the immigration office.

Kano is Nigeria’s second largest city, with perhaps seven million people. For more than a millennium it has been a terminus of trans-Sahara trade and a center of Islamic learning. It has a major university that is a respected center of Islamic studies. The emir of Kano is one of Nigeria’s important Islamic traditional rulers and is close to the sultan of Sokoto, who is the preeminent traditional ruler in the North. (After the April 2011 presidential elections, the sultan and the emir were seen as having “sold out” to Jonathan, and a mob burned down their private houses.) Though Kano has a Christian minority, most of the population is Muslim.

Why would a radical Islamic movement such as Boko Haram stage attacks where victims are likely to be Muslim?

An alleged Boko Haram spokesman, Abul Qaqa, provides a plausible explanation for the attack. The attack, he said, was in revenge for police murder and other abuse of Boko Haram adherents. Boko Haram had appealed without any response to the emir, the governor, and a business leader. He also said that it was only because of the intervention of “prominent scholars” that Boko Haram had not made Kano altogether ungovernable. He said that because of their appeals, Boko Haram will still “tarry.”

The police, a national—not a state or local--force are notorious for their abuse and widely hated. The policy is to avoid stationing a policeman in the area that he comes from. That way, so the theory goes, the policeman will be impartial. It also means in practice that the police often have little understanding or sympathy for the people they are supposed to protect. They are woefully underpaid, and many of them are involved in scams that prey on poor people. Hence, any attacks on the police are likely to be popular.

It is hard to know who Abul Qaqa represents. But, from his public comment with its focus on the local treatment of Boko Haram adherents, it is credible that he speaks for the individuals who carried out the weekend attacks in Kano.

Kano has a history of radicalism. Recently, it was a center of opposition to President Goodluck Jonathan’s efforts to end the fuel subsidy. This opposition united ethnicities and religions in Kano (and elsewhere) in a way that Boko Haram would not like. That might have also played a role in the weekend bombings, only a week after the Hisba (Islamic police) provided protection for Christian churches.

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