LAGOS, Nigeria — Boko Haram, Nigeria's extremist Islamic sect, has re-emerged to violently challenge the government in the country's north, after months of apparent inactivity following a brutal crackdown last year.
Suspected Boko Haram members attacked a police station in the northeastern state of Yobe on Oct. 24, according to police. A gun battle between police and the attackers lasted about an hour and there were conflicting reports as to whether there were any casualties.
It was the third such incident in recent months. Boko Haram members are also suspected of attacking two other police stations in the dusty and impoverished northern states since September. In the biggest raid, 750 inmates — including jailed Boko Haram members — were freed.
Boko Haram is campaigning for Islamic Shariah law to be implemented throughout Nigeria, whose 150 million people are roughly divided between a mostly Muslim north and largely Christian south. A dozen northern states have introduced the Shariah religious codes over the last decade.
The Boko Haram sect gained international attention last July, during clashes with security forces that left some 800 people dead, according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch. The authorities’ use of force to quell the uprising has generated as much debate as the sect itself. Many say that the current unrest is motivated by revenge.
“The so-called followers of Boko Haram have said that they will take revenge on whoever has harmed them,” said Auwalu Anwar, an academic who has studied the sect and a member of Nigeria’s opposition CPC party.
“In states where [Boko Haram] were crushed, and perhaps dealt with unfairly, government people are jittery,” added Anwar, who plans to run for governor in Kano, northern Nigeria’s biggest city, in next year’s elections.
There is little concrete information about Boko Haram, which means “Western education is forbidden” in Hausa, a language spoken in several West African countries. Even the approximate number of its members and the identities of many of its leaders are unknown.
But fears over the group’s possible comeback have been on the rise since this August, when a series of fatal sniper attacks on police officers and political figures began.
Nigeria’s radical Islamist sects are not a new phenomenon. In the early 1980s, hundreds died in similar riots led by a fringe group called Maitatsine. Many northerners observe that economic woes, rather than religious fervor, spur the violent movements.
Even though poverty is widespread across Nigeria, the north fares particularly badly. Government data shows that 30 percent of children in the north are underweight, as compared to 12 percent in the south.
Job opportunities are scarce and many local manufacturers have closed down in recent decades, stymied by the country's woeful electricity supply and bad roads.
“This is what causes all this violence in Nigeria: lack of jobs. We see youths here in Kano who have nothing to do and no opportunities,” said Habib Isa, the deputy imam of the Kofa Mata mosque in Kano. He emphasizes that these small radical sects do not conform with the central, peaceful tenets of Islam. “Anything that comes their way, good or bad, they will embrace it. Anyone who comes to them, they will follow. People like to have a shared goal.”
In response to the recent resurgence of Boko Haram, the Nigerian authorities have boosted security in Maiduguri, the town where last year’s uprising took place. Hundreds of armed police and soldiers have been sent to the small town. With elections in the oil-rich country due in six months, there are fears that the violence will escalate.
The events have also stoked long-held fears that international terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda could find willing recruits in Nigeria, home to an estimated 70 million Muslims. Yet there is little evidence to suggest that Boko Haram currently has a global dimension. The sect seems to rage primarily against what it sees as injustices at home.
“The issue of religious militancy will continue to afflict the north for as long as the economic problems persist," said Anwar. "The masses here feel that they have no one but God.”