ABUJA, Nigeria — If the goal is carnage, Boko Haram has had its best year ever.
Authorities blame Boko Haram, a homegrown Islamist rebel movement with ties to Al Qaeda, for more than 750 deaths in 2012. The militants have obliterated churches, schools, government offices, security forces, media houses, market places and communications infrastructure.
Their methods are growing more and more gruesome by the year. Early in 2012, coordinated bombings of government and security offices in Kano killed nearly 200 people in a single afternoon. More recently, in a northern college town, militants went door to door, interviewing individuals and executing dozens who gave the wrong answers.
Boko Haram has also stoked ethnic tensions and leveled the economies of several cities. There appears to be no end in sight.
While there are no statistics on emotions, it’s safe to say that millions of Nigerians are now living in fear, especially in the north. Taiwo Babatunde, a college lecturer in Damaturu, a northern town hit hard by bombings and battles, said people there now live by a new set of rules.
“Don’t go out at a particular time. Don’t go to certain areas. Don’t try to pass on inflammatory statements that might spite them,” he told GlobalPost, referring to Boko Haram, during a visit to Nigeria’s capital.
Formed among the poverty of northern Nigeria in 2002, Boko Haram was originally a nonviolent organization that rejected Western excesses and education. “Boko Haram,” which roughly translates to “books are sinful,” is a local nickname.
Attacks by Boko Haram began in 2009 as sectarian tensions in the north began to flare. After its spiritual leader, Mohammed Yusuf, was killed in police custody that same year, the group’s militant demeanor took hold. It began to call on Nigeria to implement a harsh interpretation of Islamic law.
These days, Boko Haram’s growing clout as a terror group is doing a number on President Goodluck Jonathan’s reputation. Despite his claims that security forces have prevented 70 percent of planned attacks, his administration is regularly called weak.
For civilians, they only want peace.
Rosemary Ufayo Lawani owns a small grocery store not far from the site of an April bomb attack. She said she’s tired of the constant news of bombings, executions and gunmen firing on civilians. If Boko Haram makes clear and reasonable demands, she said, she would rather the government give in than keep fighting.
“Give it to them, please,” she said. “Do something because we are losing souls every day.”
While there has been some discussion of peace talks between the government and Boko Haram, they haven’t gone far. At one point, news of secret talks leaked in the press, prompting Boko Haram to apparently pull out. Later, the president’s office confirmed that peace talks were ongoing. But Boko Haram denied it.
Members of Boko Haram, however, exist deep in the shadows. There is no clear leadership structure, and no point person for negotiations or communication. Nigerian authorities, at two different times, claimed to kill Boko Haram’s spokesperson, known as Abu Qaqa. But there is no way to verify whether Qaqa is even an actual person.
Boko Haram only communicates with the public through YouTube and blocked, one-way emails and phone calls with journalists.
The Nigerian government now says no talks will be held until leaders identify themselves.
“You can’t discuss with the air,” said Oronto Douglas, a special assistant to the president. “You have to talk with human beings. If members of Boko Haram come out today to say, ‘We are Boko Haram,’ Mr. President will give an audience for a dialogue either directly or through identified committees.”
Clement Nwankwo, the executive director of the Policy and Legal Advocacy Center in Abuja, said he agreed with this sentiment, adding that negotiating with criminals could amount to rewarding the crime.
“I think that if you have a group that is bombing and killing indiscriminately, then I worry [if] you can have a negotiation with that kind of group,” he told GlobalPost.
Nigeria’s security forces, in their haphazard pursuit of Boko Haram militants, are exacerbating the problem, activists say.
In a report released in early November, Amnesty International said Nigerian security forces shoot first and make arrests later, spooking the public and making it more difficult to gather information on Boko Haram organization.
The report accuses security forces of kidnapping, torture, torching homes and extra-judicial executions.
Lt. Col. Sagir Musa, a spokesperson for the northern operation against Boko Haram, referred to an earlier press release, where he denied such accusations.
“Very few cases of unprofessional conduct by some personnel are well documented and those concerned were punished,” the statement read.
For many observers, neither negotiations nor military efforts are enough to stop the violence. Nwankwo said as long as northern Nigeria continues to grow poorer, disaffected youth will continue to lash out, or take jobs as militants because they have nothing else to do.
It’s a pattern scene the world over, where Al Qaeda-styled groups often tap into disenfranchised populations to fill ranks.
Not only emulating Al Qaeda, Boko Haram appears to now have operational ties with it. The group also boasts ties to Al Shabab, Africa’s premiere terrorist organization, and with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
“It seems to be a very well funded operation,” Nwankwo said. “So it seems to me that it has to be somebody who has a lot of resources to be able to coordinate and execute this.”
In its latest missive to the world at large, Boko Haram posted a video to YouTube with the title, “Glad Tidings, O’ Soldiers of Allah.”
The man believed to be the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, spoke in Arabic on the tape, not his local language.
“Nigeria and other crusaders, meaning America and Britain, should witness, and the Jews of Israel who are killing the Muslims in Palestine should witness,” he said, “that we are with our mujahideen brothers.”