Violence-torn Nigerian city wary of Islamist sect talks

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Deep-rooted mistrust of the establishment in this troubled Nigerian city mean residents are putting little faith in government plans to open dialogue with radical Islamist sect Boko Haram, but they prefer it to a military solution.

President Goodluck Jonathan inaugurated an eight-member committee on Tuesday to look into attacks by Boko Haram, whose name roughly translates into “Western education is sinful”, that have killed hundreds this year.

Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, sits in one of the poorest regions of Africa’s most populous nation, in the dusty, remote northeast, near borders with Chad, Cameroon and Niger, Reuters reports.

Its streets, usually filled with street hawkers and motorbike taxis, have been emptied in recent weeks after parts of the city were torn apart, first by daily attacks by Boko Haram and then severe military reprisal strikes.

The local university has been closed, motorbikes banned, and the sound of busy local trade has been replaced by gunfire as sect members and the military clash daily.

Amnesty International has said brutalisation by security forces, unlawful arrests, killings and disappearances have been the operating practice in Maiduguri for months, stoking support for Boko Haram and resentment against the government.
“How sincere is the government? Is this not another political gimmick?” Peter Eze, a mechanic whose business has faltered this year as customers left the city.
“We have lost relatives and friends to the Boko Haram crisis and this looks like another government trap.”

Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for months of shootings and bomb attacks. Strikes mainly target the police and other authority figures and the groups ambition spread when it bombed police headquarters in the capital Abuja in June.

WHO IS BOKO HARAM?

Jonathan’s committee plans to review all the security problems in the region and make recommendations to bring a speedy end to the crisis, it said on Tuesday.
“I would plead and call on the sect to embrace this dialogue process … I assure them that all their genuine grievances will be addressed and appropriate recommendations made,” Usman Galtimari, chairman of the committee said.

The difficulty Galtimari and others may have in talking with Boko Haram is determining whom they are dealing with.

Intelligence officials have said in the past there is evidence to suggest some Boko Haram members have trained over the border in Niger, where al Qaeda’s north African wing, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, is known to have a presence.

But the group has an ill-defined command structure, a variety of people claiming to speak on its behalf, and an unknown number of followers, although some analysts say it has thousands of supporters and is growing in popularity.
“The establishment of the committee is a positive development if it brings peace but I fear they will not identify genuine Boko Haram members to dialogue with,” said Abubaker Modu, an Islamic cleric operating in an area of Maiduguri that has suffered some of the worst bomb attacks.

Further complication comes from the political jostling that surrounds security crises in Nigeria. Local Borno leaders have said attacks aren’t always being carried out by Boko Haram and politicians are using the unrest to their advantage.

Previous security problems in the “Middle Belt” and the Niger Delta have blurred the line between popular movements and politicians stoking violence for their own ends.
“There is high level intrigue between factions within Borno state politics, many of whom are looking to promote their ambitions,” said Antony Goldman, head of London-based PM Consulting. Members of the latest committee have a long history in Borno politics and some are stakeholders.

Recent Nigerian history shows dialogue attempts have had mixed levels of success. Another committee looking into violence during elections this year has yet to produce any concrete results.

MIXED SUCCESS

Violence in the “Middle Belt” around the city of Jos, where hundreds were killed last year in clashes between Christian and Muslim gangs, flared up during the initial military surge but were tempered during talks with clashing groups.

Years of conflict between the armed forces and Niger Delta militants in the south were halted after a government amnesty in 2009, a solution that some have proposed for the Boko Haram crisis.

But the Delta militants were asking for jobs and a fairer share of wealth, while elements of Boko Haram are calling for unrealistic changes such as the sacking of the Borno state government and a wider application of sharia law.

Boko Haram has made no public response to the latest proposal but has previously rejected opportunities to talk to the government.

The change of tactics by the president marks a failure by the military to stem the violence. Local Borno leaders, prominent Muslim figures and human rights groups have been scathing about the efforts of a military Joint Task Force (JTF).

The sultan of Sokoto, the spiritual leader of Nigeria’s Muslims, slammed the actions of the JTF and encouraged a long-term solution to what drives support for Boko Haram.
“Violence begets violence and once violence is meted out on people, so many people suffers … we have to ask ourselves questions on who are the members of the Boko Haram? What are they fighting for?” the sultan said this week.

West African Islam is overwhelmingly moderate and the sect’s ideology is not widely supported by Nigeria’s Muslim population, the largest in sub-Saharan Africa.

Illiterate youths and professionals who quit jobs and families to joint Boko Haram are filled with frustration over what they see as a corrupt and self-serving political elite.

The committee may find the root of the problem lies more in resentment towards the government and the inequality of wealth in Nigeria than in radical Islamist ideology.
“There is a lack of confidence in the establishment in parts of the north … Boko Haram are targeting the state because it is the actions of the state and the way the army has been run that has fuelled the mistrust,” Goldman said.