NAIROBI, Kenya — On Tuesday, Jan. 10, a mosque and madrasah in Benin City in the south of Nigeria were set alight by a mob of angry Christians. Five people were burned to death.
The same day, in the little town of Potsikum in the north, Islamist gunmen sprayed bullets into a pub, killing eight people — five of them police officers.
These killings were the latest skirmishes in what some fear will become a full-blown civil war in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation with 160 million people, and one of its most starkly divided.
The violence is being driven by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, whose murderous targeting of Christians is triggering an increasingly violent backlash against Muslim northerners.
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Already thousands of people are fleeing in either direction, heading for the safety of their own communities.
Boko Haram — a Taliban-like militant Islamist movement rooted in the impoverished north whose name means ‘Western education is forbidden’ — is held responsible for over 500 deaths last year and over 100 more since Christmas Day, when bombs were detonated in three packed Christian churches, killing dozens of worshippers.
President Goodluck Jonathan himself raised the specter of civil war. Speaking to a Christian congregation in the South on Jan. 8, Jonathan compared the current religious tensions to the Biafra conflict of the late 1960s in which more than a million people died when the state tried to secede from Nigeria.
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“The situation we have in our hands is even worse than the civil war that we fought,” Jonathan said.
“During the civil war we knew and could even predict where the enemy was coming from … but the challenge we have today is even more complicated,” he said, adding that Boko Haram’s sympathizers could be found in the government, judiciary, armed forces and police.
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Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, and other influential Nigerian writers, penned an open letter to all Nigerians this week urging them: “Let not this fire spread.”
“The fears we have all secretly nursed are coming to realization,” wrote Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and JP Clark.
“The nightmare we have hugged to our individual breasts, voicing them only in family privacy, or within trusted caucuses of friends and colleagues … has finally burst through.”
In a radio interview shortly afterwards Soyinka said he agreed with Jonathan.
“It's not an unrealistic comparison — it's certainly based on many similarities. We see the nation heading towards a civil war,” he told the BBC World Service.
Over the last year, Boko Haram has established itself as a serious player in the gradual rise of Islamic terrorism in Africa and is now regarded as “an emerging threat” by the US, with some calling for it to be classified as a foreign terrorist organization.
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The group carried out its first confirmed suicide bombing in August, when it killed 25 people in an attack on UN headquarters in the capital, Abuja. US officials believe it is forging links with the Sahara-based Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. There have even been reports of training links with Somalia’s Al Shabaab.
This is all a far cry from its humble beginnings as an obscure Muslim sect in a largely unknown Nigerian town of Maiduguri. Then, it appealed mainly to poor people who saw little hope for their futures in a corrupt country ruled by a venal and staggeringly rich elite who, it seemed, hoarded the nation’s wealth in the south.
Boko Haram fought a low-level insurgency until 2009, when the government cracked down hard. During days of gun battles centered on Maiduguri, many hundreds of people were killed until the sect’s leader Mohammed Yusuf was captured — and then murdered — by security forces.
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Vengeance seemed to propel Boko Haram after Yusuf’s killing. Gun and bomb attacks targeted police and government workers in the north of the country. More recently the group’s targets have expanded to include the UN and Christians in general, irrespective of any role in the state.
Up to now, Nigeria has responded to Boko Haram as an armed threat to be crushed by military force. This strategy has failed, and even helped to further radicalize the group.
But its recalibration as a terrorist organization bombing churches, murdering Christians, gunning down police officers and suicide-bombing the UN will only strengthen the military reaction, making a negotiated solution less likely than ever.
Meanwhile Boko Haram's terror campaign threatens to drag Nigeria — a country seemingly perpetually on the brink — into a maelstrom of sectarian violence.
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