LAGOS (Reuters) - Bad governance and poverty fuelled the rise of an Islamist sect which claimed the bombing of Nigeria’s police headquarters and politicians need to look closer to home before blaming foreign militants.
Boko Haram, a radical sect from the remote northeast, said it was behind the blast which tore through a car park outside the multi-storey building last Thursday, killing several people and narrowly missing the inspector general of police.
Within hours, emergency workers and the police were calling it a suicide bomb -- although subsequent reports have cast doubt on that -- and Boko Haram’s claims that some members trained in Somalia raised suspicion that foreign militants were involved.
“The explosion was an act of terror, which has become a global trend,” President Goodluck Jonathan said on Monday, according to a statement from his office, pledging the government was taking “definite steps” to strengthen security.
Intelligence officials have said in the past there is evidence to suggest some Boko Haram members have trained over the border in Niger, where al Qaeda’s north African wing, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, is known to have a presence.
A U.S. diplomatic cable from 2009 obtained by Wikileaks and provided to Reuters by a third party said a veteran Chadian extremist with “limited ties to al Qaeda associates” had visited northeastern Nigeria and may be planning an attack.
A letter, claiming to be from Boko Haram, was sent to a local newspaper this month saying members had returned from Somalia after being trained “by brethren who made the interim government ungovernable”, an apparent reference to Somalia’s al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab Islamist insurgents.
But while a hard core of members of Boko Haram, whose name means “Western education is sinful” in the Hausa language of northern Nigeria, may have links with foreign militant groups, most of its support base is home-grown.
It has an ill-defined command structure, a variety of people claiming to speak on its behalf, and an unknown number of followers, although some security analysts say its has thousands of supporters and is growing in popularity.
“They’re having to turn people away,” said one analyst who declined to be named, adding that tighter security in the sect’s northeastern home town of Maiduguri had polarised the population and increased resentment of the local authorities.
Boko Haram’s former leader, self-proclaimed Islamic scholar Mohammed Yusuf, was shot dead in police custody during the 2009 uprising in which hundreds were killed. His mosque was destroyed with tanks and the security forces claimed a decisive victory.
But low-level guerrilla attacks on police stations and targeted killings, including of traditional leaders and moderate Islamic clerics, intensified in the second half of last year.
The support that Yusuf drummed up -- from illiterate youths to professionals who quit jobs and families to join him -- came as much from frustration with what is seen as a corrupt and self-serving political establishment as from religious fervour.
West African Islam is overwhelmingly moderate and the sect’s ideology is not widely supported by Nigeria’s Muslim population, the largest in sub-Saharan Africa.
“I‘m not after you, I‘m after the government,” Yusuf told terrified residents, including Christians, in the neighbourhood around his mosque in the early hours of the 2009 uprising.
The frustration he exploited remains.
A failed education system, scant job opportunities, easy access to weapons over porous borders and a perception that all of Nigeria’s economic development is concentrated in the predominantly-Christian south make for a dangerous mix.
“This should be another wake-up call for Nigeria’s political class,” said Antony Goldman, head of London-based PM Consulting.
“Until politicians start dealing with the basics, a basic level of services, the massive inequality of wealth, the arrogance and corruption of the political elite, then attaining a basic level of stability will be elusive,” he told Reuters.
Suspected Boko Haram members have carried out almost daily attacks in and around Maiduguri in the remote northeast, many of them using home-made explosives or carried out by gunmen on motorbikes -- nothing as sophisticated as a suicide bombing.
Nigerian newspaper This Day quoted a security source who viewed CCTV footage of Thursday’s blast saying it appeared at most to have been a timed bomb which exploded before the carrier could drop it, rather than a deliberate suicide attack.
The concern is that the sect’s campaign will continue to spread beyond its Maiduguri home region.
“This attack further highlights the need for an able and effective government team ... to address the underlying socio-economic factors such as unemployment and corruption that is fuelling much of this unrest,” said Kayode Akindele, partner at Lagos-based advisory firm JMH-TIA Capital.
“Business as usual is not good enough any more.”