Nigeria: Boko Haram’s Deadly School Attack

Map of Nigeria locating 25 February attack in the town of Buni Yadi, Yobe State. AFP

Crisis Group’s Africa Program staff assembled this Q&A following Boko Haram’s attack of 25 February. Crisis Group will release a full-length report on Boko Haram in mid-March.

What happened?

In the early hours of Tuesday 25 February, about 50 gunmen from the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram stormed a co-educational, federal government boarding school in Buni Yadi, Yobe State, about 65km from the state capital, Damaturu. The attackers locked a dormitory and set it on fire, killing many students inside. Students who tried to escape were shot or knifed to death. In all, there were 59 fatalities; all killed were males; some female students were abducted, others ordered to quit school and go get married or be killed in future attacks. The school’s 24 buildings were completely burned down.

What has been the government’s reaction?

President Goodluck Jonathan has called the attack “a callous and senseless murder … by deranged terrorists and fanatics who have clearly lost all human morality and descended to bestiality”. A military spokesman in Yobe State, Captain Lazarus Eli, said troops were “in pursuit of the killers”, but military authorities offered no further details. Many commentators on social media and radio/television talk programs dismiss these reactions for being insufficient.

What is the local reaction?

This incident, and several other attacks this month, are seen as further examples of the failure of the government and the military to protect Nigeria’s citizens. The rising casualties from recent attacks are fuelling an already considerable anger, not only in the north east, which is worst hit by the violence, but across the country.

Why are the militants increasingly targeting civilians?

Because they are soft targets. The militants accuse communities – especially those with significant Christian populations – of collaborating with government security forces. Their terror tactics are intended to compel compliance with their ideology. (For more on the historical and ideological roots of the movement, see our 2010 report Northern Nigeria: Background to Conflict.)

Why are they targeting schools?

They say secular, state schools are the main conduits through which Western values, which they consider un-Islamic and therefore corrupting, are being transmitted to the local society.

President Jonathan declared a state of emergency in 2013 and launched a military offensive in May to crush the rebels. Why is this not working?

The military operation has been difficult for several reasons. First, this is an unconventional, asymmetric war (in which the attackers generally avoid direct combat but attack soft targets like schools and remote villages). Second, the military initially had little or no capacity (training, equipment, special units, etc.) for operations against such insurgents. Lastly the terrain is vast and difficult. The three states where Boko Haram is most active (Adamawa, Borno and Yobe, all covered by the state of emergency) total 154,000 sq km: larger than the U.S. state of Georgia and nearly two thirds the size of the UK. The number of soldiers deployed would need to be considerable to provide adequate protection to all possible targets, especially remote communities. Yobe State Governor Ibrahim Geidam and Borno State Governor Kashim Shettima have recently criticised the military’s performance, insisting more resources are needed to defeat the increasingly well-armed and apparently emboldened insurgents. The military’s performance has been compromised by rivalries with other security agencies. There are indications of possible sabotage by military elements who support, or are sympathetic to, Boko Haram’s demand for an Islamic state to counter the corruption and dysfunction of the current government. Military authorities also suggest they are not getting maximum cooperation from the security forces of neighbouring countries, particularly Cameroon.

What are the implications for the 2015 elections?

The Independent National Electoral Commission warned in December 2013 that it might not be able to conduct elections in the three states (Adamawa, Borno and Yobe) under emergency rule if the attacks continue into next year. These states are among sixteen in which the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) is quite strong. Some opposition politicians are already alleging that Jonathan is allowing the poor security situation to persist, or even deteriorate, in order not to hold polls in those states. A general or presidential election that leaves out these three states could give Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) a significant advantage at the polls. If Jonathan wins re-election that way, the opposition will likely vigorously challenge his victory; the 2011 post-election violence in the north killed more than 1,000.

However, conversely, there are those who believe the government’s management of the conflict reflects poorly on the Jonathan administration and therefore continued attacks could dim the president’s chances of re-election.

Boko Haram recently said it will strike oil installations in the Niger Delta and assassinate leading political figures nationwide. How serious is this threat?

Security sources say they do not underestimate Boko Haram’s capacity for wreaking havoc. In 2011, Boko Haram carried out suicide-bomb attacks on the national police force headquarters as well as the complex housing all UN agencies in Abuja, the Nigerian capital – about 850km away from the attackers’ base in Borno State. (See our commentary at the time.) No target anywhere in the country is entirely secure. Boko Haram cells have been uncovered in the south, including Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital. Some suspected members were arrested recently in Port Harcourt, the largest city in the Niger Delta and hub of the country’s oil industry. The possibility of the group striking oil facilities cannot be ruled out.

If the group is planning to attack oil installations in the Niger Delta, would they do this on their own or possibly in collaboration with the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND)?

Collaborating with MEND is highly unlikely. The two groups have strikingly opposing ideologies, interests and goals. Boko Haram views MEND as part of the “infidel” southern Nigeria; MEND views Boko Haram as part of a “Hausa/Fulani/Islamist” plot to dominate the country (especially the oil-producing areas) for its own purposes.

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