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Nigerian fighting

July 29, 2009

Days of fighting between security forces and Islamist radicals in the northern Nigerian city of Maiduguri have left at least 150 people dead.

Map of Nigeria
Map of Nigeria showing the conflict areas to the norhtImage: DW

The violence erupted on July 26 after an Islamic fundamentalist group called Boko Haram, styling itself on Afghanistan's Taliban, launched attacks on police stations, prisons, churches and government institutions across four northern states.

Deutsche Welle's Mark Caldwell talked to Dominic Johnson, the Africa editor for Berlin's Tageszeitung newspaper.

What is the underlying cause of this unrest?

In the past there's been a lot of religious and ethnic unrest in northern Nigeria. This time, it's radical Islamist groups attacking all representatives of state authority directly. They're not going after Christians, they're going after the police, they are burning down police stations, and fighting the state. This is a new development.

What is known about the groups behind this unrest?

One of them, Boko Haram, which basically means books are bad/education is bad, is an Islamist group which wants Sharia in all of Nigeria. The other one is called Taliban and is based in based in Maiduguri, however, it is not clear whether they themselves call themselves Taliban. They seem to be Islamist study groups which model themselves in some way on the Afghan Taliban, but it is not clear whether they have any political goals apart from recruiting people and apart from advocating their very extreme form of Islam.

How much support do they have among the local population?

That's completely unclear. They don't appear to have any widespread support of the local population. They seem to be acting in isolation. What's more important is that they probably have support in neighboring countries. In Maiduguri it has been reported that some of the attackers speak Arabic, they don't speak English or Hausa. That would indicate they come from Chad or even farther away.

How much of a threat is this to the authority of President Yar'Adua?

Nigeria's President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua on right
Nigeria's President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, right is dealing with violenceImage: AP

It's not a threat in itself to the authority of the president. It's a threat in combination with the other crises the country is facing. There is still an armed insurgency in the south of Nigeria, in the oil-producing areas of the Niger delta, which the government is not really able to cope with. If the government now appears weak in the face of the Islamist threat in the north of the country while in the south violence is going on, then people may get the impression that it is not up to the task and that is quite dangerous.

How long do you think this violence will last?

It depends on the reaction of the army and the police. They've been going quite forcefully after militants trying to cross state borders. Fighting is still going on. It was reported this afternoon that the Islamists are holed up in one particular part of Maiduguri, so this could end quite quickly. However, as long as it is not clear what kind of networks are behind this violence and whether these people have any kind of wider agenda, it'll be difficult to tell.

The leader of the group, Mohammed Yusuf, said young people in the region are being corrupted by the West. What exactly is he objecting to in Nigeria?

There's a longstanding dispute over the education system in Nigeria, whether it should be a uniform education system throughout the country or whether there should be some particular emphasis on Islamic religious education in the north and the radical Islamist groups which have existed in northern Nigeria for years don't want people to go to normal English schools and learn the normal Nigerian curriculum, they want them to learn the Koran and be much more turned towards the Arabic world.

Interview: Mark Caldwell
Editor: Neil King