from Africa in Transition

Nigeria’s Boko Haram: “We Are in Abuja!”

April 21, 2014

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In a video released over the weekend, Boko Haram warlord Abubakar Shekau took responsibility for the April 14 bombing at the suburban Abuja bus station that killed at least seventy-five people and probably many more. He claimed to be physically present in Abuja. He was dismissive of President Goodluck Jonathan, whom he characterized as beholden to President Barack Obama.

He was, however, silent on the kidnapping of more one hundred school girls, also on April 14. Because there have been so many conflicting statements and at least one official retraction, I have no confidence in the number of those kidnapped or those who have subsequently escaped. For what it is worth, citing official sources, the media is saying that at least eighty-five girls are still missing.

The state of emergency in Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa expired on April 19. The Nigerian media is reporting sentiments in the military to restore and strengthen it by removing the governors of those three states and suspending their state assemblies.

The Nigerian press is also speculating that Goodluck Jonathan will “soon” announce his candidacy for re-election as president in the 2015 elections.

What is the significance of these developments, taking them one by one?

Typically, Shekau does not lie about matters of fact in his videos. Hence, I take at face value his claim to be in Abuja. The orderly monumental core of Abuja–the locale of the presidency, the National Assembly, government offices, and embassies–is surrounded by a belt of often chaotic slums, informal settlements and other suburban housing. One estimate is that suburban inhabitants number some seven million, including displaced persons from ethnic and religious strife in the Middle Belt and those fleeing the struggle between Boko Haram and the security forces in the North. There would seem to be many places in which Shekau and his confederates could hide and plot. Based on his rhetoric, Shekau does appear more and more to focus on President Obama, the United States, and the West. Yet, thus far, there have been no attacks on Western institutions, perhaps in part because there are so few of them north of Abuja.

The fact that Shekau does not claim responsibility for the kidnapping of the school girls is an indication that the operation was carried out by another part of the Boko Haram movement not under his operational control.

As for Goodluck Jonathan’s formal announcement of his candidacy, that has long been expected. Some in moderate, pro-democracy northern Islamic elite see his candidacy as further polarizing the country and accelerating the current downward spiral. They argue that Nigeria’s foreign friends, especially the United States, should urge him not to run. However, foreign governments are usually reluctant to involve themselves so directly in the internal politics of a friendly country.

If the military should carry the day and the three northern governors are removed and the state assemblies are suspended, then any pretense of democratic, civilian governance in that part of the country will be gone. In effect, the military will govern. It is difficult to see what practical difference this will make, though the legality of such a move is open to question. Arguably the security services could oversee the 2015 elections in the three affected states, as it did nation-wide in 1999. However, for Boko Haram elections are anathema as they are part of the secular, democratic governance to which it is so opposed. It will almost certainly do everything it can to prevent elections from taking place in those parts of the country that it controls or in which it is influential.