Terrorism: Averting a Sectarian Crisis in Nigeria


Terrorism is nothing new to most Nigerians today. Most troubling is the continued spate of bombings in parts of the country despite attempts made to curtail them. The recent UN House bombing in Abuja is just another pointer that terrorism in Nigeria has evolved from being spontaneous to being highly coordinated. President Goodluck Jonathan has met a monstrous problem he didn’t create (and so must be giving all the necessary support by well meaning Nigerians to curtail it) but if he fails to solve or reduce this problem within his tenure, then the country called Nigeria might witness a complete breakdown of law and order (similar to Somalia), not as a result of a revolution (which is most unlikely) but as a result of a sectarian crisis. Historically speaking, the outbreak sectarian crisis has been an advance phase in many Islamist inspired insurgencies across the world and so promoting a sectarian crisis is a goal by many fanatical Islamist groups. Boko Haram is apparently trying to toe Nigeria along this path which has been a feature of the Iraqi Insurgency following the toppling of Saddam Hussein. This can be classified into three stages which are interwoven and as a build up to a sectarian crisis. Political phase: bombings, kidnappings, attacks on security personnel and installations, foreign missions etc. Social phase: attacks on relaxation centres, places of worship, schools etc. Economic phase: attacks on banks and businesses, work interruptions and other acts of economic sabotage etc. Such groups are usually keen to infiltrate the police and military to foster a breakdown from within. The organization responsible for these actions is basically a small one with cells that each contain a ’link man’. Cumulative acts of violence wreak havoc and create insecurity, which will eventually produce a loss of confidence in the government.

The divisive forces of tribalism or religious differences have been intensified by ambitious and unscrupulous Nigerian Politicians who appeal to the tribal or religious sentiments of their people in order to win their votes at elections, or to score points against an opponent. These politicians have gone further by using these people to ignite acts of social, ethnic and religious violence. For example, Karl Marx spoke of religion as means devised by the privileged to subjugate the less privileged under perpetual hegemony in order to exploit them spiritually, physically, psychologically and sexually. Illiteracy is specifically high in the northern part of Nigeria which can partly explain the tendency of many there to resort to religious violence over the slightest provocation which logically might not have had anything to do with religion in the first place. Illiteracy creates a lack of understanding among individual or groups in a society. The lack of understanding serves as a potential weapon in the hands of dubious leaders and elites in fermenting discord in the society.

The fact is that any major unchecked crisis in an ethnically and religiously mixed or cosmopolitan Nigeria has the potential of wrecking havoc to the extent of gradually bringing down a government. No scenario is ever exhausted. Because something hasn’t happened doesn’t mean it can’t. Life is an unpredictable process that can never quite be figured out. As a principle in Murphy’s Law it is stated that ‘’If anything can go wrong it will’’. Human nature somehow guarantees that nothing turns out quite the way it’s supposed to. Therefore, though ethnic and religious differences might never allow a Nationalist inspired revolution to take place in Nigeria, there is a tendency for a sectarian crisis if things are not handled boldly and carefully. There is the possibility of people rallying round cultural organizations, Political movements, regional and factional groups e.g. OPC/Afenifere for the Yoruba’s, MASSOB/Ndigbo for the Igbos , and Arewa for the Hausa’s. Minority groups will either align themselves with these larger groups, reactivate their own old movements, strengthen existing movements, or form new groups of their own. With significant government control only at the centre as seen in Afghanistan and Somalia, the government’s security apparatus will be overstretched fighting factions and keeping factions from fighting one another. Then the government would be accused of taking sides if one faction is dealt with more severely. An arms race would develop between groups, and leaders will be tempted to arm their groups. The security agencies who wouldn’t be immune from ethno-religious sentiments themselves, will consequently find it hard to crack down on particular groups. Politics will now be between liberals and traditionalist on the one hand and religious extremist and secularist on the other. Those that see a total collapse of Nigeria as an ideal process should however study the history of Lebanon, Somalia, Afghanistan and Sudan to have an in-depth idea of what war torn countries look like.

But Boko Haram has most likely discovered that they can only take their agenda to the next level by carrying out attacks outside the north to bring repercussions on northerners in the south which will encourage attacks on southerners in the north. Part of the aim is to attempt to unify all Muslims both moderate and fanatical under the platform of ‘Nigerian Muslims’ versus ‘enemies of Islam’. Since they cannot win as a sect alone their aim seems to temporary accommodate Muslims of all views for now with the intent of discarding them when they achieve their aims. Thus, their greatest threat for now isn’t Christianity but Muslims who publicly don’t share their views and maybe the murder and assassination attempts on some Islamic clerics by supposed members of the sect is a pointer to this fact. The greatest asset the sect members have is the level of unemployment, infrastructural decay, and official insensitivity to poor Nigerians in the midst of ongoing corruption in the country. On the other hand, the greatest tool the government can ever have at its disposal in tackling this threat to national security is ‘accelerated development’. Robert McNamara  a former United States Secretary of Defence was once quoted as saying ‘’Any society that seeks to achieve adequate military security against the background of acute food shortages, population explosion, low level of productivity and per capital income, low technological development, inadequate and sufficient public utilities and chronic problem of unemployment, has a false sense of security’’. Unfortunately though, Nigeria is still striving to overcome not one, two or three of all these challenges but all of them.  


Bulus Nom Audu

Abuja based Defence and Security Analyst,

No 10 Albarka Road, Old Karu Abuja,


[email protected]

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