The US Army is giving Nigerian soldiers counterinsurgency training to deal with increasingly violent militants who have killed more than 100 people over the last few days.
The UK’s Guardian newspaper reports a Nigerian military spokesman as saying that some battalions had received training in the United States and that the Nigerian army “is in the process of setting up a division that is effectively looking at warfare tactics.” The spokesman added that, “Various battalions were in the United States earlier this year for training to that end.”
The US embassy in Abuja told the Guardian that, “We have had a mil-mil relationship with the Nigerians for decades, principally supporting their peacekeeping efforts in Africa (Liberia, Sierra Leone, Darfur) and around the globe. In recent years, and at their request, we have also worked with them on their nascent counter-force. We do not know if any of these elements have been deployed in the north.”
The United States has supported the Nigerian military in other ways. Nigerian Air Force pilots have trained in America and in May the Nigerian Navy took delivery of the ex-US Coast Guard cutter Chase (WHEC-718).
Boko Haram, which in the Hausa language spoken in northern Nigeria means “Western education is sinful”, is loosely modelled on the Taliban. The group became active in about 2003 and is concentrated mainly in the northern Nigerian states of Yobe, Kano, Bauchi, Borno and Kaduna.
The group considers all who do not follow its strict ideology as infidels, whether they are Christian or Muslim. It demands the adoption of sharia, Islamic law, in all of Nigeria.
In July 2009, Boko Haram staged attacks in the northeastern city of Bauchi after the arrest of some of its members, and clashed with police and the army in the northern city of Maiduguri. Some 800 people were killed in five days of fighting in the two cities. Later that month, sect leader Mohammed Yusuf was captured by Nigerian security forces and shot dead in police detention some hours later.
In December 2010 the group said it was behind bombings in central Nigeria and attacks on churches in the northeast that led to the deaths of at least 86 people.
On June 16, 2011, a car bomb tore through a car park outside Nigeria’s police headquarters in Abuja. The next day Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the blast, which officials said may have been the first suicide bombing in Africa’s most populous country.
Rights groups say more than 250 people have been killed by Boko Haram since July 2010. On August 26 a suicide bomber struck the U.N. building in Abuja. At least 23 people were killed and 76 wounded by the bombing which gutted the ground floor and smashed almost all the windows. Boko Haram claimed responsibility on August 29, demanding the release of prisoners and an end to a security crackdown aimed at preventing more bombings.
The blast was the first known suicide bombing in Nigeria. It marked an escalation in the group’s tactics and revealed an increase in the sophistication of explosives it uses.
At least 65 people were killed in the city of Damaturu and the village of Potiskum on November 4. The attacks, which included a spate of bombings in the northeastern city of Maiduguri, were some of the worst on record by the group. Nigeria’s police said on Tuesday they had arrested suspected Boko Haram members behind the attacks last week.
Boko Haram is becoming a major headache for President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration as it grows in sophistication and deadliness. It has twice struck the capital this year.
Efforts to make war on Boko Haram in the past have done little to quell the insurgency and heavy-handed police tactics in the northeast have radicalised youths against the state – creating a fertile breeding ground for more militancy.
Ultimately, Nigeria may have to address the poverty and sense of alienation in the remote, semi-arid north, which feels increasingly left out of the economic growth enjoyed by the oil-rich south.
A state-sponsored committee in September urged establishing a dialogue with Boko Haram, an idea reiterated Sunday by the governor of Borno, the worst affected state, Kashim Shettima.
Nigeria, a country of 150 million people split nearly evenly between Christians and Muslims, is mostly peaceful, but growing militancy in the north and violence in the ethnically and religiously mixed “Middle Belt” are an increasing worry.