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Nigeria's Muslim rebel movement capitalized on electoral tensions

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Sunday Alamba/AP

(Read caption) Motorcyclists ride past a campaign billboard of John James Akpan, of the Action Congress of Nigeria, in Uyo, Nigeria, on April 25. Only a week after the presidential election sparked riots that left an estimated 500 people dead, voters are being asked to cast ballots Tuesday for their state governors. Concern about renewed violent upheaval already has prompted officials to delay two elections in the volatile north, and some voters and poll workers now plan to stay home for fear that holding another poll will inflame tensions.

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In the months before Nigeria’s elections, the Muslim rebel movement Boko Haram assassinated several politicians in the Northeastern state of Borno. The victims included the gubernatorial candidate of the All Nigeria People’s Party (ANPP), which is an opposition party at the national level but is the ruling party in Borno. Even before the elections began, then, Boko Haram had affected their outcome.

Boko Haram is not the sole, or the main, agent of violence in Northern Nigeria right now. The movement did not orchestrate the violent riots that occurred in many Northern states following the announcement of incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan’s victory last week. But Boko Haram’s acts of violence are significant. During Nigeria’s multi-stage elections, the sect has continued to carry out attacks. Yesterday, a statement it put out warned of more violence and called for the implementation of shari’a throughout Nigeria (currently shari’a only applies in twelve Northern states). With state elections happening this week (most legislative elections, along with the presidential elections, have concluded), it is worth keeping an eye on Boko Haram and on the Northeast.

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Here’s a look at some of Boko Haram’s activities during election season:

Not all of this violence should be called electoral violence. Some of these incidents would likely have occurred even if elections weren’t going on: Boko Haram regularly attacks Islamic leaders and police officers, and periodically storms police stations and jails.

But some of the violence is clearly linked to the elections, especially the bombings of rallies, polling stations, and electoral offices. It’s best not to ascribe every act of violence in the Northeast to Boko Haram without proof, of course. Still, it seems reasonable to suspect that the movement was behind at least some of this electoral violence.

During election season, then, it seems Boko Haram has a hybrid strategy: its long-term guerrilla campaign continues against its religious rivals and against the security forces, but it is also taking advantage of the elections to sow disorder and delegitimize the state.

How will this affect political outcomes in the Northeast? As the AP notes, “Maiduguri…has seen little of the vote-related unrest reported elsewhere in northern Nigeria this month.” So officials there have been spared some problems that other regions are facing. And Boko Haram still stands, it seems to me, no chance of taking power. Yet Boko Haram’s activities appear to have demoralized some of the security forces in the Northeast. Whomever the residents of Borno, Bauchi, and Adamawa States elect this week, these officials – and the federal government – have a tenacious problem on their hands with Boko Haram.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.