(Reuters) – Hundreds of armed police and soldiers have been drafted into a city in northeastern Nigeria to try to prevent further unrest after a spate of attacks by a radical Islamic sect.
Four 100-strong units of anti-riot police (MOPOL) along with soldiers from neighbouring Bauchi and Plateau states have been sent to Maiduguri after a string of attacks blamed on the Boko Haram sect, police and government officials said on Wednesday.
Suspected Boko Haram members burned down a police station in the city on Monday, and are believed to be behind the killings of police officers, politicians and traditional leaders in recent weeks.
The unrest has raised fears of a repeat of an uprising last year in which the sect attacked police stations, government offices, prisons and schools, leading to five days of gun battles with the security forces in which up to 800 people died.
“I have come along with four units of MOPOL which have been deployed to strategic areas, so I am calling on the public to go about their normal duties without any fear of attack,” regional assistant police chief Mohammed Hadi Zarewa told reporters.
“We have identified all the black spots and taken necessary steps to forestall any attack,” he said.
A state government official said soldiers had also been drafted in but declined to say how many.
Boko Haram, whose name means “Western education is sinful”, wants sharia (Islamic law) more widely applied across Africa’s most populous nation.
Its followers are supposed to eschew the use of Western-made goods and are sometimes referred to as the “Nigerian Taliban” for their long beards and turbans, but there is no published evidence of any links with foreign militant groups.
Zarewa confirmed Boko Haram was behind the recent killings, saying five police officers and six civilians had been shot.
He said a number of arrests had been made but declined to give details and said the state government was offering a 500,000 naira ($3,300) reward for any information leading to the detention of Boko Haram members.
Nigeria, a vast nation of more than 140 million people, is roughly equally divided between Christians and Muslims. Boko Haram’s views are not espoused by the vast majority of the Muslim population, the largest in sub-Saharan Africa.
Nigeria is preparing for a fiercely contested presidential election and can ill-afford insecurity in the north. It was shaken by car bomb attacks in the capital Abuja two weeks ago, claimed by a rebel group in the oil-producing Niger Delta, hundreds of kilometres to the south.
Maiduguri sits in one of Nigeria’s poorest regions near its northeastern borders with Cameroon, Chad and Niger in the Sahel, a strip of arid savannah on the southern edge of the Sahara.
It is unclear how many followers Boko Haram has, but poverty, unemployment and a lack of education have meant its leaders have managed to build a cult-like following who are as much violently anti-establishment as fervently religious.
Churches were burned in last year’s uprising but the targets were overwhelmingly state institutions.
Clad in military fatigues and brandishing a Kalashnikov, Mohammed Yusuf, the sect’s leader who was later killed in police detention, told terrified residents of a mixed Christian and Muslim neighbourhood in the early hours of last year’s uprising: “I’m not after you, I’m after the government.”
The authorities said the killing of Yusuf last August and the flattening of his mosque by tanks meant Boko Haram had finally been destroyed.
But the frustration Yusuf exploited remains. A failed education system, scant job opportunities and easy access to weapons over porous borders are a dangerous cocktail.
“I call on parents to monitor the movement of their children so that they do not join the wrong group,” Zarewa said. (For more Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: af.reuters.com/ ) (Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Giles Elgood)