Boko Haram takes aim at Nigeria's elections

Obi Anyadike

Editor-at-Large and Africa Editor

Three bomb explosions in the space of two days in northern Nigeria signal a resumption of urban terror tactics by Boko Haram, a jihadist group that wants to demonstrate it is still a force to be reckoned with despite recent military setbacks, according to analysts. 

Two suicide bombings on Monday at bus stations in Potiskum, and 360 kms away in Kano, killed an estimated 27 people. On Sunday a young girl strapped with explosives killed five at a security checkpoint at a market, again in Potiskum.

President Goodluck Jonathan on Tuesday condemned the “callous bombing of soft targets” by the militants, linking the attacks to the success of a military offensive that has reportedly won back a string of towns held by Boko Haram in recent weeks. The group is yet to claim responsibility for the latest blasts.

The mood in Kano on Wednesday was calm “but cautious,” Michael Sodipo, director of the Kano-based Peace Initiative Network told IRIN. 

“The attack was Boko Haram’s usual method of coming [into Kano and] detonating their explosives,” he said. “With the [military] onslaught against them in the northeast, they are being displaced, and we should expect more attacks in other areas.”

Blowback

Kano is northern Nigeria’s commercial capital and the country’s second largest city; this is the fourth time it has been bombed in 10 months. The most devastating attack was in November 2014, following a call by the Emir of Kano - one of the most influential authorities in Nigerian Islam - for people to arm themselves against Boko Haram. Ten days later a bomb ripped through the central mosque, killing more than 100 people. 

The root of Boko Haram’s insurgency is in urban terrorism. The current strategy of holding territory, part of a broader goal to carve out a caliphate in the remote districts of northeastern Nigeria, only dates back to last year, noted Ryan Cummings, chief security analyst for Africa at the crisis management firm red24.

The battle it now faces against a re-equipped Nigerian army and air force for the control of towns, supported by Abuja’s regional allies, favours conventional armed forces. Switching back to the relatively easy, high-impact actions of “asymmetrical warfare” could help offset some of the military pressure, and reverse the propaganda setbacks it has suffered, said Cummings.

“The resumption of an urban guerilla campaign is resource-light. The explosives used seem quite crude, but one individual in a market can cause significant damage,” Cummings told IRIN. “[Bombings] undermine the government’s legitimacy, and suck security resources to urban areas away from the northeast theatre of operations.”

Disrupting the elections

He questions the Nigerian military’s failure to predict the shift in tactics and provide better security. In the 590-kms journey between Maiduguri and Kano earlier this month, IRIN counted over 40 checkpoints, but at only two were passengers asked to show their documents and none of the vehicles were searched.

Cummings warns that Nigeria’s upcoming presidential election on 28 March offers a huge incentive to Boko Haram to step up its bombing campaign, potentially targeting areas outside the northern region. The jihadist group, opposed to the concept of the Nigerian state and multiparty democracy, has already circulated leaflets warning people to boycott the polls.

“We will probably see a few more attacks in major northern cities, but we can’t rule out an attack on Abuja and possibly [the country’s commercial hub] Lagos,” said Cummings. “They would like to hit parts of Nigeria where people feel relatively safe, creating the sense that the group has the intent and operational capacity to strike anywhere.”

Nigeria’s elections have already been postponed once, from an original date of 14 February, on the grounds that the military needed more time to secure Boko Haram’s stronghold of Borno State. Any further delay could create a constitutional crisis – based on the deadline for the swearing in of a president.

“Boko Haram is obviously keen on violently disrupting the elections to add to that pressure,” said Cummings.

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