By Henry Srebrnik (guest opinion)
The Michigan State University geographer Harm de Blij, in the 2012 edition of his book Why Geography Matters, writes about an “Islamic Front” in sub-Saharan Africa that stretches from Sudan, bordering the Red Sea in the east, to Sierra Leone on the Atlantic Ocean in the west. And the line cuts many countries, including Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, in two.
When the British created the colony of Nigeria, its territory extended from the coastal forests along the Gulf of Guinea to the semi-deserts of the north, throwing together Muslim and non-Muslim ethnic groups. While the south was Christianized by European missionaries, the north remained devoutly Islamic, its people continuing to live in pre-colonial entities such as the Sokoto caliphate, Borno sultanate, and Kano emirate.
Today, Muslims, who live mainly in the north of the country, make up a little more than half the population, while Christians, who predominate in the middle and south, account for almost all of the remainder.
Of Nigeria’s 36 states, the Sharia, the civil and criminal Muslim legal system, is now in force in nine Muslim-majority states and in some parts of three Muslim-plurality states.
The Islamic Front, notes de Blij, has become “a zone of conflict that now threatens the cohesion of countries and facilitates the actions of terrorists and insurgents.” Sparsely populated places to Nigeria’s north are increasingly becoming destabilized; parts of Mali were under the control of Islamist groups affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb for much of 2012-2013.
In Nigeria, conflict began in 2001 with the formation of Boko Haram (Congregation of the People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad). It is particularly active in the northern states of Adamawa, Bauchi, Borno, Kaduna, Kano and Yobe.
Violence since the insurgency began has resulted in some 10,000 deaths, especially since 2009, when the group’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf was killed. The current leader Abubakar Shekau, calls interaction with the non-Muslim world forbidden, opposes western-style education, which the group considers sacrilege, and wants to overthrow the secular Nigerian state.
Many Boko Haram militants, and those of an even more radical splinter faction known as Ansaru (Vanguard for the Protection of Muslims in Black Lands), formed in early 2012, joined the Islamist insurrection in Mali and returned with sophisticated weapons and tactics learned there, according to Nigerian officials.
“I enjoy killing anyone that God commands me to kill,” Abubakar Shekau remarked after Boko Haram had killed more than 180 people in Kano, northern Nigeria’s largest city in January 2012.
As the violence intensified, Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian, declared a state of emergency in the three northern states of Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe last May. It did not quell the brutality.
Nigerian military officials say those being targeted are Boko Haram militants, but Western governments and international human rights organizations have also expressed concern. American Secretary of State John F. Kerry called on Nigeria to uphold human rights as it tries to crush Boko Haram.
In late December Abubakar Shekau appeared in a video, claiming responsibility for a Dec. 20 attack on a Nigerian army barracks in Bama, south of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state.
He promised to “decapitate and mutilate” more people and ridiculed the United States for putting a bounty on his head.
There was further heavy fighting between the Nigerian army and Boko Haram in Banki, also in Borno state, last month and militants were blamed for a deadly bomb attack on Jan. 14 that killed 43 people in a crowded market in Maiduguri, during festivities marking the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad.
Worse was to come. An attack by Boko Haram insurgents on Kawuri, a village in Borno state, on Jan. 26 killed 85 people. In the village of Waga Chakawa, in neighbouring Adamawa state, they murdered at least 26 people on the same day during an attack on a Roman Catholic Church service.
Altogether, over 200 people died this past January at the hands of militants. The United Nations stated that 4,000 people had also fled northeast Nigeria to Cameroon and 1,500 to Niger since mid-January, both as a result of the insurgency and the military response to it.
In December 2013, Canada listed Boko Haram as a terrorist organization. Ottawa’s Ambassador for Religious Freedom, Andrew Bennett, in a statement said that “Canada condemns the terrible attacks by Boko Haram in north-eastern Nigeria.”
Nigeria is an incredibly resilient nation. It has experienced civil war, military dictatorship, religious extremism, and ethnic violence since independence from Britain in 1960. Now, President Jonathan has committed himself to bringing an end to the activities of Boko Haram this year. But it won’t be easy.
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.