from Africa in Transition

Is There Harassment of Muslims in Nigeria’s South?

January 27, 2014

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Sub-Saharan Africa


Terrorism and Counterterrorism

The Nigerian media is reporting that the Rivers State police command arrested 320 people to investigate allegations that they were Boko Haram members. “Boko Haram” is the government and media label for the radical, Muslim jihadi insurrection in northern Nigeria; Rivers state is in the south, a major oil producer, and mostly Christian in population. “Boko Haram” has never been active there. See the CFR Nigeria Security Tracker for the current extent and level of violence associated with “Boko Haram.”

According to the media, the 320 were traveling in approximately twenty buses from Jigawa state in the far North. The state is dirt poor and within the sphere of “Boko Haram” and security service violence. The police picked the suspects up at the Rivers state border. As of January 26, the police were providing no details. The state police command said: “It is a top security issue... But there can be no comment for now from the state police command until we finish the investigation. I will make no comment.”

It stretches credulity that 320 “Boko Haram” activists would travel to the far south of Nigeria in a convoy of approximately twenty buses. More believable are sources from the Daily Trust, a northern newspaper, which questioned whether those arrested were Boko Haram. Instead, one source suggested that those arrested sought to sell carrots and do “cobbing jobs” in Port Harcourt, the capital of Rivers and a major oil terminal. Another Daily Trust source subsequently claimed that those arrested were northern traders who had lived in Port Harcourt for up to a generation. He also claimed that the traders were not Boko Haram members, and that prominent northern leaders in Rivers state had gone to the police to “identify the suspects.” For at least some Nigerian Muslims, the arrests will look like harassment. Given usual police methods, it is unlikely that those detained are being gently treated.

The arrests may also reflect southern panic over “Boko Haram” and the government’s inability to bring it under control. Up to now, there has been remarkably little retaliation in the predominately Christian southern Nigeria against Muslims for “Boko Haram” depredations against Christians in the north. Thus far, the apparent goal of some in “Boko Haram” to provoke a general Muslim/Christian conflagration has failed. From that perspective, mass arrests of Muslims in the south is playing with fire.