Red Cross officials search for the bodies of the victims and the wounded at the scene where two explosions rocked a crowded neigborhood in Maiduguri's Gomaris district on the evening of March 1.
Credit: Stringer

NAIROBI, Kenya — The headlines from northern Nigeria just keep coming and the death tolls keep rising. This past weekend saw not one but three attacks by the self-declared jihadist group Boko Haram on civilian targets. If you're new to the conflict or even if you're just checking back in after having tuned out of the Boko Haram story for a while, you may be wondering what exactly is going on. Here are five basic questions about the Boko Haram violence to bring you up to speed.

1. Just how bad is it?

This past weekend in northern Nigeria was horrifyingly bloody. It began with a double car bomb attack in the city of Maiduguri on Saturday that killed 51 including soccer fans and wedding guests. The first explosion targeted a busy neighborhood while the second, a few minutes later, killed rescuers. That night, 39 people were killed in an armed assault on the nearby town of Mainok. Then on Sunday night 29 more were killed in an attack on Mafa town. According to figures compiled and cross-checked by Human Rights Watch, around 5,000 people were killed in Boko Haram attacks or violent responses by state security between 2009-2013. Another 600 have been killed so far in 2014.

2. What is it all about?

Populist Muslim cleric Mohammed Yusuf set up Boko Haram in 2002 in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State in northeastern Nigeria — the same city that saw the double car bomb attack over the weekend. The name Boko Haram is Hausa for "Western education is forbidden" (although its full official name is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, meaning “Sunni Group for Preaching and Jihad” in Arabic) and the group’s stated aim was to found an Islamic caliphate in Nigeria. It gained strength and in 2009 the government launched a security operation to shut it down. At the end of the four-day battle, as many as 1,000 of Yusuf’s supporters were dead, as was their leader, who was executed while in police custody. The movement was reborn soon afterward. Under its new leader, Abubakar Shekau, the group has become more extreme in its Salafist beliefs and more committed to violent jihad to overthrow the Nigerian government. Already, a dozen northern states have instituted Sharia law of their own accord, but Boko Haram wants to impose a strict Taliban-style rule with room for neither secular government, education nor non-Muslims. In 2011, its first suicide bombing killed 21 people at the United Nations headquarters in Abuja, the capital. An offshoot of Boko Haram called Ansaru specializes in jailbreaks and kidnapping foreigners. Burnishing their terrorist credentials, Boko Haram and Ansaru were both designated as foreign terrorist organizations by the State Department in November.

3. What is it REALLY all about?

No one seems to know for sure but it’s certainly more than just religious extremism or terrorism. The answer may rather lie in history, poverty and politics.

North-south tensions have existed in Nigeria since its birth, when British imperialists shunted the arid, mostly Muslim north and the sweaty, mostly Christian south together into one country. Economically and politically the south has dominated the neglected and marginalized north. Today, religious divides are compounded by divisions of geography, religion, wealth and politics. As in other parts of Africa, radical Islamic groups find willing recruits among impoverished, poorly educated young men with few prospects.

Politics in Nigeria are so dirty that many see Boko Haram as a political invention, a bogeyman to frighten the population and distract from misdeeds, or conceal them. President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian, has said he believes Boko Haram sympathizers have infiltrated even the highest echelons of Nigeria’s political and security establishment. Some opposition politicians, however, have instead suggested Jonathan would profit from increased Boko Haram violence: They see the continuing unrest in the north as a deliberate tactic to undermine participation in elections due to be held next year, giving President Jonathan an excuse not to hold polls in the northern states, whose residents mostly oppose him.

4. What is the government doing to stop the violence?

Not enough. In May, President Jonathan imposed a state of emergency in three northern states where Boko Haram is most active (Adamawa, Borno and Yobe) and deployed Nigeria’s army to fight the insurgents. These measures have not helped much, instead triggering an increase in militant attacks on soft civilian targets. With an estimated 600 killed so far this year 2014 is shaping up to be one of the deadliest yet, bloody proof of the security forces’ failure to protect the people. Far from stopping the killing Nigeria’s military has contributed to it. On Saturday a misdirected air strike reportedly killed 20 in the village of Daglun. During a Nigerian army raid on the town of Baga in April as many as 200 people were killed and over 2,000 homes burned down. In recent weeks northern governors have criticized the army for failing to stop Boko Haram and there have been repeated reports of soldiers fleeing, leaving civilians to their fate as attacks begin. Dismayed by the government’s response in some places vigilante groups have been set up by local authorities or arisen spontaneously to protect communities, taking security into their own hands.

5. Why does it matter?

Although it hardly poses an existential threat to the US, there is evidence that Boko Haram fighters were in Mali training alongside militants from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) indicating growing ties between extremist Islamic groups in West Africa. In video messages, Boko Haram’s leader has threatened the US and praised Al Qaeda. In any case, Boko Haram is already taking thousands of lives and wreaking havoc in northern Nigeria. The group threatens the stability of Nigeria, which is a major oil producer, the regional economic powerhouse, and Africa’s most populous country. The ongoing violence is also contributing to dangerous regional destabilization in a part of the world where state control is weak, Islamic extremism is gaining ground, and religious divisions can be exploited. Boko Haram needs to be stopped but no one seems to know how, least of all Nigeria’s government.

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