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Northern Nigeria lives in fear of militant group

The Al Qaeda-styled group Boko Haram mounts attacks almost daily, killing police and burning schools. Police respond haphazardly, and residents keep quiet for fear of reprisal.

April 06, 2012|By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times
  • An image taken from video posted by Boko Haram sympathizers shows Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the militant group.
An image taken from video posted by Boko Haram sympathizers shows Abubakar… (Associated Press )

KANO, Nigeria — In an attack that didn't happen — well, not officially — a police inspector and four of his officers were ambushed by Islamist militants last month in this northern Nigerian city.

Two of them died, two crawled away and hid in a ditch, and the inspector, shot in the leg, called on his cellphone for help. It arrived eventually, but only after he had bled to death.

Northern Nigeria is a region under siege. Boko Haram militants mount attacks almost daily and security forces retaliate in a scattershot way, often mowing down civilians. Authorities trumpet their success in killing militants, but often, such as in the recent ambush, neglect to mention their own losses, or those of civilians.

In its bid to topple the Nigerian government and impose sharia law across Africa's most populous country, Boko Haram has killed a shocking 1,000 people since the beginning of 2011. The group, which modeled itself on the Taliban, has been implicated in kidnappings of foreigners, bombings of churches and markets, and burning of schools because of its hard-line opposition to secular education.

It has launched suicide bombings in the capital, Abuja, and unleashed carefully coordinated attacks in Kano and Maiduguri, another city in the mostly Muslim north, that have disturbing echoes of those carried out by Al Qaeda, with which U.S. and Nigerian military officials believe the group is allied.

The low-level war has unnerved the region and devastated its economy. Northern cities are gripped with fear of faceless Boko Haram informants; most dare not speak the group's name, instead referring obliquely to "the security situation."

"There is so much fear," said Abdulatif Abubakar, a journalist with the Freedom Radio station. "You don't know who the person next to you is, who is watching you, who is monitoring you. Some people are leaving town."

Boko Haram, whose names means "Western education is a sin," most commonly launches drive-by shootings aimed at police officers and soldiers. In a typical Kano attack, gunmen on a motorcycle opened fire recently on a group of people, including plainclothes police, who were playing cards in the cool shade of a tree. The next day, witnesses who were asked about the attack hurried away.

"Just forget about it," one muttered.

The mounting violence has sharpened political and secular tension between the north and the mainly Christian south.

A sense of alienation permeates the north, which is the poorest part of Nigeria. The anger is deepened by a federal-state deal that provides southern oil-producing states a generous share of oil revenue to compensate for past neglect, a formula that could be a recipe for greater northern poverty, alienation and extremism.

Boko Haram has found easy recruits among the poorly educated, unemployed men in the north.

The government is "corrupt and insensitive to the plight of the common man. This insecurity we are having is the fallout of poor governance in Nigeria," said shopkeeper Abdul Garba.

Peace talks between representatives of Boko Haram and the government collapsed last month.

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Boko Haram's weapons and attacks have become steadily more sophisticated. In January it sent an army of attackers into Kano to explode dozens of bombs before swarming on motorcycles and on foot to shoot down any men fleeing. At least 187 people were killed in the battle; local civil rights activists say the figure was at least 256.

One Kano policeman who has twice narrowly escaped being killed in Boko Haram attacks said rank-and-file officers had lost confidence in the police force's leadership, who he said send junior members out to face the extremists while avoiding danger themselves. Many senior officers were terrified to sleep at home, staying in hotels and switching regularly, he said.

Recently, he said, he was almost shot when gunmen ambushed a police patrol. His friends died in front of him. And in the January attack, he was at the roadblock outside the city police barracks when a Boko Haram suicide bomber drove an SUV into the gates, triggering a blast that killed dozens.

"He was laughing and waving at us," said the policeman, who didn't give his name because of fear of reprisal by Boko Haram, and because he was not authorized by the police force to comment. "When he didn't stop, we ran in the opposite direction for refuge. [Other attackers] came on foot, well-armed. Their target was anyone running from the scene of the explosion.

"They came in large numbers, hundreds of them, and cordoned off the whole area. Some had AK-47s, some had RPGs [rocket-propelled grenade launchers].They were shouting, 'Allahu akbar,' [God is great] and pronouncing words in Arabic."

He said he escaped by finding shelter in the barracks.

The policeman said there were frequent ambushes and killings of police, most never publicly reported by authorities.

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