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Nigeria violence

August 16, 2009

Northern Nigeria is seeing an increase in sectarian violence. Western condemnation has been swift, but that seems to be the only reaction. But what if the violence spills over to more vital regions of the country?

Photo of dead bodies in front of police headquarters
In Maiduguri, Nigeria, bodies lie in the street in front of police headquartersImage: AP

The latest violence in Nigeria began late last month when gang members attacked a police station in Bauchi, a city in north-eastern Nigeria. They were members of Boko Haram, a Nigerian militant Islamist group led by Ustaz Mohammed Yusuf. Boko Haram's mission is to overthrow the Nigerian state, impose an extreme interpretation of Islamic law and abolish what they term as "Western-style education."

The attack was the result of the gang members' outrage at the arrests of various gang leaders. The ensuing clashes with Nigerian security forces resulted in a bloodbath that lasted for day, leaving at least 700 people dead.

Photo of destroyed Boko Haram headquarters
The Nigerian military destroyed the headquarters of the radical Islamist sect Boko HaramImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Nigerian security forces then launched an offensive on the compound of the sect leader, Mohammed Yusuf. Troops shelled Yusuf's home after the leader and his followers barricaded themselves inside the building. Boko Haram's leader was eventually captured and later shot dead in allegedly controversial circumstances. Conspiracy theorists insist the sect leader was assassinated.

International reaction

The riots have triggered alarm and a call to normalcy from the international community. The EU issued a statement urging both sides to show restraint: "The European Union expresses its deep concern over the recent violent developments in parts of northern Nigeria, including attacks by militant groups known as Boko Haram. The EU deplores the loss of life."

"The EU recognizes the right and obligation of the Government of Nigeria to uphold peace and security within its territory. However, the EU trusts that the authorities will show restraint in the use of force and respect human rights. Protection of the civilian population is essential. The EU calls for a quick return to normalcy and will continue to closely follow the developments."

The Islamist group has become known as the “Taliban”, although it shares no evident links with the Taliban in Afghanistan. While there is widespread concern, the international community has largely remained passive, suggesting that this is viewed as an internal Nigerian problem.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also expressed his concern over the reports of sectarian violence. His spokesperson, Farhan Haq, said the secretary-general "condemns the unnecessary loss of human life and the destruction of property as a result of militant attacks. He hopes that those behind the attacks would be identified and brought to justice in accordance with the law."

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has urged both sides to end the violenceImage: AP

"The secretary-general calls upon the government of Nigeria, law enforcement and security agencies, as well as religious and community leaders, to work together to address the underlying causes of the frequent religious clashes in Nigeria so that a resolution could be found through dialogue, tolerance and understanding," Haq said.

Amnesty set for action

While both the UN and EU have taken a largely conciliatory approach, the rhetoric coming from Amnesty International was more forceful.

Franziska Ulm of the German division of Amnesty International told Deutsche Welle that "Amnesty International condemns the killings in northern Nigeria from both the armed militants and the security forces. We are demanding the authorities install a commission which would undertake prosecution of the killings committed both by the armed militants and the security forces."

"Amnesty has several times documented killings by Nigerian security forces without them being brought to justice,” she added.

Complexity of peace goal

A burnt-out car on a street
The aftermath of the violence in MaiduguriImage: picture-alliance / dpa

However, with widespread outrage over the allegedly unlawful killing of Mohammed Yusuf, and religious and socio-political tensions still rife in the less-industrialized northern Nigeria region, peace may be a complex and challenging goal to achieve.

Some experts insist the riots are more rooted in socio-politics rather than religion, as a poor and frustrated population takes to violence against the government and its troops. If that is the case, the tensions in the North may eventually spill over into larger southern regions, such as Lagos and Ibadan, whose inhabitants are also suffering economic hardships and can relate to the deep frustration with the Nigerian leadership. If the conflict becomes entrenched in the more industrialized southern regions, home to foreign and multi-national corporations, it could mean that the issue is no longer merely an internal matter.

Author: Faith Thomas
Editor: Rob Mudge