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Extremist Attacks Show Boko Haram Can Strike Anywhere


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. We start today in Nigeria. Africa's most populous country is continuing its fight against Boko Haram. That's an extremist group whose name means Western education is forbidden.

On Monday during rush-hour, an explosion at a busy bus station outside the capital of Abuja killed at least 70 people. Nigeria's president, Goodluck Jonathan, who visited the scene placed the blame squarely on Boko Haram's shoulders. And fingers are again pointed at the group after heavily armed men reportedly kidnapped more than 100 girls from a remote boarding school in the northeastern state of Borno. That's one of three states that have been under emergency rule for almost a year.

Here to tell us more is NPR's Africa correspondent, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton. And also with us is Chika Otuah, a freelance journalist based in Abuja. Welcome to both of you.


HEADLEE: Ofeibea, you've covered the activities of Boko Haram for quite some time now. And I understand that last July, the leader of the group actually called for more schools to be targeted. What is behind this particular tactic of charging schools and either killing students or kidnapping them?

QUIST-ARCTON: Indeed. This is the question because nobody really knows. Shekau comes out with these videos from time to time. And there was an attack on a school. Sometimes, as you said, students are killed. It's been boys up 'til now. But very recently, boys had their throats slit like proverbial sacrificial lambs.

Girls were spared at a school - in another remote boarding school in the state. Girls were told, go home, get married and stop school. Stop this Western education. So it's almost like the Taliban in Afghanistan. They are saying no to Western education. But that is an ideology that fits in with Boko Haram having said that it wants to Islamize Nigeria. It wants strict Sharia Islamic law imposed, especially in the predominantly northern part of the country.

But then others say they don't seem to have any ideology. This is all about politics mixed with poverty mixed with people who want a better life for themselves, so join up with these Islamist groups.

HEADLEE: Chika, the latest that we got were - that we weren't entirely sure how many students had been kidnapped and how many escaped.

CHIKA ODUAH: So far, security officials are saying that two or three girls escaped in the Chibok school, and now they're saying that at least 200 girls were actually kidnapped. Where they are being taken, no one knows.

But people do suspect that they were probably taken to Boko Haram's encampment. That's what we are hearing right now. Security officials are trying to locate the girls who were abducted on Monday night by armed gunmen. Of course, this attack is, again - as Ofeibea said - it is a hallmark of the work of Boko Haram, just depending - judging on what they've been doing in the past.

HEADLEE: And obviously, the government is pointing fingers at Boko Haram. What else are they saying about this kidnapping?

ODUAH: So far, they haven't said much. But again, this is an unprecedented kidnapping with so many girls - about 200, according to local officials - kidnapped. Parents are taking some of their children out of the school.

They're saying that if the government had not been able to provide security, then they don't want their daughters to go to school. So again this is, perhaps, the intent of Boko Haram - meaning Western education is a taboo, a sin.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the security situation in Nigeria after attacks that are being blamed on Boko Haram. And, Ofeibea, you've reported that many members of this group are young men. And you described them as quote, "no hope, no prospects, no future, desperation, no money." What draws - I mean, obviously, perhaps poverty is the biggest draw, but what else draws them to this group that you say is not ideologically focused?

QUIST-ARCTON: Or seems not to be. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it isn't. It is very shadowy. I've only met one. He says he was not a Boko Haram fighter. He was forced into it. He was press ganged into it. That was when I was in Maiduguri, which is really the epicenter and the founding town where Boko Haram was established back in the early 2000s. Now this young man said, you know, we hardly mention God's name. We mention God's name when we're getting hungry and when our leaders realize that we've run out of food.

Then we go and raid local villages and get food from them. So that hardly squares with - we want to purer form of Islam. We want to end corruption. We want to end bad things. And we feel that the Islam that is practiced in Nigeria at the moment is the wrong kind of Islam. So it's very difficult to pin down who exactly these people are. But young boys, young men who have no job prospects and want a meal, a steady job - even if it means picking up a weapon to fight, they seem to be joining them in droves.

HEADLEE: And, Chika, what about the attitude of the average Nigerian toward Boko Haram? How do they view this group?

ODUAH: The attitude of Nigeria is definitely mixed. Many Nigerians say this cannot be the work of Nigerian people. They're saying that perhaps these attackers are coming from neighboring countries - perhaps Mali and Chad and Libya, even Cameroon. So there is a sense that this is not being done by Nigerians. On the other hand, if you talk to more pragmatic Nigerians, they say that this could definitely be Nigerians.

When you hear many of the attackers - of course, they're shouting alluhu akbar - God is great. But many of them also speak Hausa and Kanuri. Both of these are languages spoken in Nigeria. So just the sense of who these people - it's still very, very obscure. Again, people are saying if the government can address the poverty in northern Nigeria - give them more development.

The youth are largely unemployed. Drug usage is high in northern Nigeria. So many people here say that perhaps if these issues are addressed, then we could see a decrease in attack or perhaps a change of mind in these young people.

HEADLEE: Ofeibea, there are a - have been a number of tactics that have been suggested to fight Boko Haram. One is - as Chika just suggested - antipoverty. Some people have said you have to deal with the group like a terrorist group. Some people say you have to deal with them more like an insurrection. How is the government strategizing to deal with the - with Boko Haram?

QUIST-ARCTON: It is failing dramatically. It's been almost a year - May last year - the three most remote northeastern states came under emergency rule. A state of emergency was imposed by President Goodluck Jonathan, who then said the military was going to drive out and smoke out the insurgents in what was initially quite a dramatic offensive crackdown on them. But look what we're left with a year later.

In the past 12 months, Boko Haram - or these Islamist groups - have stepped up their attacks. They - on Monday - managed to hit - they haven't claimed responsibility yet, but the finger is pointing at them - this very busy bus station outside Abuja, the capital, with commuters and market traders and everybody trying to get to work. More than 70 people dead. That, of course, has frightened Nigerians.

But for almost every week - every other day sometimes - in these northeastern states that are meant to be under emergency rule, they have attacked military installations, remote villages, children in schools. I mean, they seem to be able to attack at will. President Goodluck Jonathan keeps saying, no, we have rooted them out. We have contained them to the northeastern remote area of Nigeria. But then they can strike anywhere.

So Nigerians now want the government and the military and security forces to do more and to make sure that what is - has become a huge security threat to - as you say -Africa's most populous nation - half Muslim, half Christian - to end this, because, of course, they have attacked churches and they are also killing Muslims, as well as Christians and others.

HEADLEE: So, Chika, the attack that Ofeibea is describing - I understand you were actually there on Monday. Do people see this as a destabilizing force - something that actually threatens the power of the government?

ODUAH: Of course, of course. I was at the attack in Nyanya, outside of the Abuja city center, when the explosion happened at the motor park. I spoke to many Nigerians who were saying that this, of course, will destabilize the political situation of the country. They were saying that perhaps these people are trying to make it difficult for the government to govern Nigeria. They want to make the government absolutely in a state of chaos, that perhaps the president may have to step down.

So many Nigerians see this as a situation that cannot be contained. They're not safe sleeping. People are afraid to go out of their homes. Many people I spoke to were counting the number of bodies that were laying on the ground in the motor park. Many people said that their houses shook. And again, people are just calling for an end to this. And they don't see the government trying to actually establish a state of security at this time.

QUIST-ARCTON: Let me just chip in here, Celeste, to say - and we mustn't forget that this is just a year ahead of elections in Nigeria. And election time in Nigeria is always a violent time. So you have some who are suggesting that there are political movements. The president Goodluck Jonathan himself has said that he feels that members of even his cabinet and his military are involved with Boko Haram.

He fired the whole military hierarchy just a few weeks ago and then got rid of his defense minister. But since then, we have seen, if anything, an escalation in attacks and ferocity and deaths. You know, 3,000 odd in just - what - the three - four months of this year. So that strategy doesn't seem to be working, either. And it looks like the government will have to review - rethink its strategy.

HEADLEE: And to what extent does this affect the neighboring countries or the entire continent of Africa? Or is this simply a Nigerian problem?

QUIST-ARCTON: It's a zone of instability. As you know, Borno state borders Cameroon and we're told that Boko Haram fighters come and go across the border. There have been, of course, the abduction kidnapping of European foreigners, just in northern Cameroon. And we're told that they are taken across the border.

Very recently, a Canadian nun and two Italian priests - but last year, a French family, including four children and a French priest, who was released later. So the borders are very porous. And coming in and going across that area has caused instability across the region.

And then we were told that in Mali, during the occupation of Mali's northern area in - a year or so ago, that Boko Haram fighters were involved with the Islamists who occupied the desert north. So this is a destabilizing - in inverted commas - terrorist threat to that whole Sahel region of west Africa.

HEADLEE: Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is NPR's Africa correspondent. She joined us from her base in Dakar, Senegal. And Chika Otuah is a freelance journalist based in Abuja. Thanks to both of you.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure.

ODUAH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.