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What’s behind the surge of deadly extremist attacks in Nigeria

April 16, 2014 at 6:25 PM EDT
Gunmen attacked a village in Nigeria Wednesday, killing 18 people. This incident follows the kidnapping of about 100 female students Tuesday and a bus station bombing that killed 75 people Monday. To learn more about the latest wave of attacks by Islamist extremists, Hari Sreenivasan talks to Jennifer Cooke of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: In Nigeria, Islamic extremists hit again today. Gunmen attacked a village in the country’s northeast, killing 18 people. The incident follows the kidnapping of about 100 female students on Tuesday in the same area, and a bus station bombing that killed 75 people in the capital, Abuja, on Monday.

A short time ago, the Nigerian military said it had freed most of the captured schoolgirls, but eight are still missing.

Hari Sreenivasan has more.

HARI SREENIVASAN: To help us understand what’s behind the surge in attacks and the Nigerian government’s ability to respond, I’m joined by Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

So, Ms. Cooke, who is behind this recent rash of violence and why the uptick?

JENNIFER COOKE, Center for Strategic and International Studies: Well, Boko Haram, which is the Islamist — violent Islamist group that was originally based in the northeast, is likely responsible for the bus attack on Monday, certainly for the kidnappings and the attack in Borno state today.

This is a violent group that began as fairly small sect in the northeast of Nigeria, very remote state, but has expanded its tactics, its targets, initially against security forces and police, but now against civilians, against schoolchildren, against ordinary citizens in the capital of Abuja, as well as in the states within its stronghold.

I think, after a lull, the leadership was somewhat fractured last summer and weakened. It’s clearly come back, is making a statement that it’s still very much on the scene. This is particularly frightening as Nigeria is set to host the World Economic Forum in the coming months and is entering a very fractious election cycle as well.

So these are very high-profile attacks that come at a very delicate time for Nigeria.

HARI SREENIVASAN: How — what are some of the consequences of these attacks? We’re hearing that almost a million people have been displaced either internally or externally.

JENNIFER COOKE: Well, one is the displacement. The people killed — and they have killed some 4,000 in the last four years.

The displacement, as you say, it means that very little investment is going into the north. Education and health programs have been disrupted. The economy, which is already weak, has further collapsed. And it’s made these very poor states in the northeast even poorer.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Sorry. Go ahead.

JENNIFER COOKE: Beyond which, it’s damaged Nigeria’s reputation, I think, as a place that you can go and be safe and make safe investments and so forth.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Well, what is the Nigerian government’s ability to respond to this?

JENNIFER COOKE: Well, I think — initially, I think it was very complacent in taking Boko Haram seriously in the early years beginning in 2000.

Since then, it’s come down very heavy-handedly on those communities in the northeast and it killed many members of Boko Haram, but in doing so has also swept up many innocents along with that. And that has begun to alienate some of those communities who really ultimately could be the best allies in sharing intelligence and information with the security forces.

The response in some ways has been counterproductive, perhaps drawn — become a recruiting tool for Boko Haram, but also made the communities less cooperative with the security forces. There’s also divisions within the security forces and a lot of turf battles within the military. And it’s led to a somewhat uncoordinated response and one that ultimately has not proved very effective.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Is there any sort of a simple way to look at this? Is this north vs. south? Is this Muslim vs. Christian? The attacks are starting to accelerate right around specific Christian holidays.

JENNIFER COOKE: Well, there is an element of that in Boko Haram’s ideology.

Initially, Boko Haram was an Islamist sect that was very much against Western education and Western values and the traditional Muslim leaders. But most of Boko Haram’s victims have been Muslim in the northeast. This is very much more kind of a protest against government corruption or it began as against government corruption, the poverty of the northeast, but it’s really morphed in to something that is very brutal and it’s very hard to discern any political agenda within it.

It’s become perhaps more tied with kind of global jihadist ideology, with very much still a Nigeria focus.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, what are some of the political ramifications, or the economic ones, for the country?

JENNIFER COOKE: Well, the reel wealth of Nigeria right now lies in its south. And the north has been very much excluded for that — from that. And that has deepened a rift between the north and the south in to which the security situation plays.

It’s not just the security situation that’s driving this, but a much deeper fissure between north and south that lies in economics, lies in the leadership of the country and how it’s governed. As I said, we’re heading right now into an election period. The government is under threat for the first time from a coalition of opposition groups that has actually a chance of challenging them.

And Boko Haram and this insecurity has become a real football, and with mutual accusations on both sides, and just at a time I think when Nigeria needs to pull together and kind of find a national solution to the insurgency.

HARI SREENIVASAN: It was just revealed that Nigeria has one of the largest, if not the largest economy in Africa now, right?

JENNIFER COOKE: Right. They have just recalibrated their GDP. And it makes them the largest economy in Africa.

They have tremendous opportunity in Nigeria, big population, lots of resources, tremendous wealth. And this kind of insecurity, as well as kind of the malgovernance that has driven it, really pits puts all of that at risk. And Nigerians’ government and the Nigerian people, opposition leaders have to see what the stakes are in terms of the country’s future, if they don’t get their heads around and their arms around this problem of insecurity.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, thanks so much.

JENNIFER COOKE: Thank you.