- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 30, 2009

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria

Soldiers in tanks and armored cars besieged the shelled compound of a radical Islamist sect Wednesday, the third day of fighting in Nigeria’s northern city of Maiduguri. The clashes are just the latest instance of the growing woes of Africa’s most populous nation. A country that should be rich on prodigious oil reserves is getting poorer by the day, as Islamic radicals are seeking to impose a Taliban-style regime in the north and Angola has surpassed Nigeria as Africa’s biggest oil producer.

As sporadic gunfire exploded Wednesday, hundreds of innocent people fled the neighborhood. Relief official Apollus Jediel said about 1,000 people had abandoned their homes Wednesday, joining 3,000 displaced this week in four states caught up in the violence.

It is not known how many scores of people have been killed. Police say most of the dead are militants, from a group that wants to impose Taliban-style rule across this multireligious country of 140 million. Dozens of people have been arrested.

Reporters on the ground say the trouble started with militants attacking a police station in Bauchi state Sunday. Then they attacked police in Kano, Yobe and Borno states, of which Maiduguri is the capital.

President Umaru Yar’Adua said the situation was under control. But people around Maiduguri railway station area, a stronghold of the sect, said they were kept up all night by running gunbattles.

The sect’s compound has been cordoned off since Monday by police and soldiers reinforced Tuesday by elite troops under the command of Maj. Gen. Saleh Maina.

On Tuesday, Gen. Maina launched a mortar attack on the sect’s sprawling compound, which is thought to stretch for about 2.5 miles.

Authorities imposed curfews Tuesday night and security forces poured onto the streets.

The radical sect behind the latest violence is known by several names, including Al-Sunna wal Jamma, or “Followers of Muhammad’s Teachings,” and Boko Haram, which means “Western education is sin.”

Some Nigerian officials have referred to the militants as Taliban, although the group has no known affiliation with Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.

Riots, religious conflicts, sectarian violence and communal fights over land and water explode periodically in northern Nigeria. According to reports commissioned over the years, they often are orchestrated by politicians and religious leaders.

Analysts say the recent trouble has brewed for months, as police began raiding militant hide-outs and finding explosives and arms.

While Nigerian officials profess secularism, and religious and ethnic intermarriage is common, religion is a sensitive, often political, issue.

Shariah, hard-line Islamic law, was implemented in 12 northern states after Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 2000. More than 10,000 Nigerians have died in sectarian violence since then.

“Those who were excited about the possibility of Shariah have been disappointed. Corruption … did not stop when it came in,” said Junaid Mohammed, a former member of Nigeria’s parliament. “People have been disappointed by the system and are looking for ways to vent their anger.”

At the heart of the radical Islamic insurgency is dire poverty and political maneuvering. The attacks on police were committed by frustrated, unemployed youths and orchestrated by religious leaders and politicians who manipulate them to retain power.

It’s a similar situation to Nigeria’s oil-rich delta, where attacks by militants demanding a greater share of the wealth their region produces have reduced oil output by a third - and led the way for Nigeria to lose its historic place as Africa’s leading oil producer.

The delta militants have carried out a string of devastating attacks on pipelines and other oil installations as well as kidnappings of petroleum company employees.

When the oil militants attacked a fuel depot in Lagos, the country’s economic capital - for the first time striking outside the delta - the government reacted by freeing a long-jailed leader of the movement and urging negotiations.

But that fight likely will continue as long as the government fails to address decades-long grievances about the unrelenting poverty of the delta people.

In the north, governments have done little over the years beyond commissioning reports after particularly bloody bouts of violence, never acting on them because those orchestrating the violence have links to well-placed members of the elite that has controlled successive governments.

It’s one of the legacies of British colonization that never has been rectified. The colonizers ruled the north of Nigeria indirectly through sultans and caliphs. In the south, they governed directly and missionaries brought Western education.

Corruption and inefficiency are blamed for the persisting poverty in Nigeria, the world’s eighth-biggest oil exporter and fifth-largest source of U.S. oil imports.

Some Nigerians were hopeful 10 years ago when decades of corrupt and brutal military rule ended, and again two years ago when they had the first handover of power from one civilian president to another.

But former President Olusegun Obasanjo and Mr. Yar’Adua have links to the powerful military - and that has helped perpetuate Nigeria’s cycle of corruption.

More than halfway through his term, Nigerians have lost hope in Mr. Yar’Adua’s promises of reform, including a chaotic and corrupt electoral system that even Mr. Yar’Adua conceded left questions about whether he really won elections.

Like previous Nigerian governments, he has failed to deliver even basic services such as piped water, electricity and health care.

His pledge to fight corruption remains unfulfilled, with state governors charged with stealing millions of dollars still on the loose.

Many are asking whether he, like his predecessors, is a prisoner of corrupt vested interests that helped propel him to power.

Michelle Faul reported from Johannesburg.

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