Maiduguri is the capital of Borno state and is the metropole of northeastern Nigeria. It has a federal university and an international airport, co-located with a Nigerian air force base. On the edge of the Sahara, it has long had religious links with Khartoum and been a center of radical Islamic thought. It has become known as the city of Boko Haram’s origin, and the venue where the movement’s leader, Mohammed Yussuf, established his community and was eventually murdered by the police. Most of its indigenous population is Kanuri, but like any big Nigerian city, it is populated by numerous ethnic groups. In pre-colonial times, the jihad of the sultan of Sokoto failed to conquer Borno, and its traditional ruler, the Shehu of Borno, continues to be a significant religious, cultural, and possibly political figure. Maiduguri is primarily a trading center. Even in the best of times, it is very poor, a reflection of the general poverty common to northeast Nigeria. The size of its population is approximately 1.2 million, including many refugees displaced by Boko Haram.
Boko Haram has carried out numerous attacks in Maiduguri. The most recent occurred on Sunday, January 25, when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was meeting with the two leading presidential candidates of the upcoming February 14 elections. The attack was repelled, but Boko Haram now controls villages encircling Maiduguri. The principal road to Damaturu and to Kano, Nigeria’s second largest city, remains open. There are unconfirmed reports that Boko Haram has now cut the Damaturu road, which would effectively cut off access to Maiduguri except by air. According to Nigerian media, residents of Maiduguri widely expect that there will be further Boko Haram attacks before election day.
There is not much information on life in territories Boko Haram controls. Unlike ISIS, Boko Haram does not overtly intend to establish governance structures or provide public services. The administration of a heavily populated metropole like Maiduguri might be beyond Boko Haram’s capacity. Rather than occupying Maiduguri, Boko Haram might conduct a series of bloody raids targeting the federal facilities, military, and police. It would not be surprising if Boko Haram tries to take control of the airport and airbase.
Borno and the northeast generally support the political opposition instead of the governing power. A credible presumption is that most Nigerians in the northeast would support Mohammadu Buhari and his All Progressives Congress (APC) against incumbent Goodluck Jonathan and his Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). However given Boko Haram’s presence, it is unclear whether many in Borno will actually be able to cast ballots. Indeed, a large scale Boko Haram attack on Maiduguri, with the loss or destruction of the airport and the airbase, would be a major blow to the Nigerian government and could have consequences for the February 14 elections. It would also reinforce the widespread view among Nigerians outside the northeast that the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan is failing to provide for the security of its citizens, a view that increases support for Buhari in parts of Nigeria that have previously not supported him.
In this pre-election period, Boko Haram has been a political football between the PDP and the APC. Boko Haram’s perspective appears to be ‘a plague on both your houses.’ It may have tried to assassinate Buhari and the Shehu of Borno, and it has also threatened death to Jonathan many times.