A decade into its guerilla war, Nigeria’s robust Islamist insurgency Boko Haram is far from contained. 2013 saw the group intensify its campaign to introduce a strict Islamic code of law to northern Nigeria, prompting mass civilian displacements amid a climate of fear and tension. 2014 is shaping up to bring more of the same, thanks in large part to a bumbling government strategy that has cemented the radical group’s resolve, even as it alienated Nigeria’s most vulnerable local populations.
President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration has consistently underestimated the levels of public support for Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, which has long been marginalized by Abuja. (See Mali’s north-south divide for a similar narrative.) In February, we noted that, despite (or perhaps, because of) years of the government’s elephant-gun tactics — including the violent suppression following the death of group founder Mohammed Yusuf in 2009 — Boko Haram has suffered no apparent losses to its operational capacity.
Yet, the strong-armed tactics continue. In May, Jonathan launched a broad military offensive, and implemented a state of emergency law that did little to curb the group’s violent rebellion. This, after a short-lived attempt at diplomacy, which saw Jonathan abruptly offering militants amnesty mid-year in a move that angered his security chiefs. (Boko Haram’s response: “On the contrary, it is we that should grant you [a] pardon.”) Rights groups have since called the government’s harsh treatment of detainees allegedly belonging to Boko Haram into question, and accused Nigerian forces of kiling more civilians in 2013 than the radical movement. Quite the sobering claim given that, according to the U.N., more than 1,200 people have been killed in Islamist-related violence, including bombings and shootings, since May, adding to the thousands of casualties for which Boko Haram is believed responsible. The violence has been indiscriminate, targeting both Christians and moderate Muslims. Most recently, the group launched a wide-scale attack on Nigeria’s international airport, and a military air force base, killing over fifty security agents.
Amid the security deterioration, Jonathan’s government has been wracked by intense — and now heavily mediatized — infighting. On December 13, former Nigerian president (and one-time Jonathan supporter) Olusegun Obasanjo turned against his former protégé. In a leaked letter entitled “Before it is too late”, Obansanjo warned that it would be “morally flawed” for Jonathan to seek re-election in 2015, and that Nigerian voters should seek a less corrupt alternative. (In Nigeria there is an unspoken rule of an alternating presidency between the majority Christian south and the predominantly Muslim north.) Jonathan countered that the letter was a baseless jab, implicitly calling Obasanjo a “coward,” and accused his predecessor of stirring up ethnic tensions.
The 18-page missive, and the heated reactions it provoked, attests to the deep fissures within the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP). In November, a large faction of state governors defected from the PDP to join the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC); a few weeks later, Goodluck’s party finished second behind the APC in a critical state election considered to be a gauge of the president’s popularity. Now, in the wake of Obasanjo’s letter, the APC is calling for Nigeria’s National Assembly to impeach the president — boosted, no doubt, by the recent defection of 37 lawmakers in the House of Representative to the APC, which ended the president’s parliamentary majority.
Though the PDP still controls the Senate, the stage is set for a reversal of the status quo in 2015 — particularly if the opposition can maintain its current momentum. The risk being that the rumblings in Abuja may intensify Nigeria’s ills by compounding the prevailing insecurity problems with renewed political strife. With any (electorally legitimate) regime change at least one year away — and campaigns in Mali and the disintegrating Central African Republic occupying regional and Western attention — there’s little to stop Boko Haram raging on and consolidating its regional power into 2014.