Nigeria's latest spate of violence -- which began with attacks on police stations in four northern states -- is not what it seems. Superficially, the story looks similar to (though it was not connected with) outbreaks of Islamist fanaticism elsewhere in the world: An Islamist sect run amok, threatening a town's security, demanding an end to Western institutions, and seeking to impose a strict religious code. But instead, the clashes are a northern Nigerian version of what is happening in another (mostly Christian) region of the country, the Niger Delta. Both are violent reactions to the flagrant lack of concern on the part of those who govern for the welfare of the governed.
Ten years of supposed democracy have yielded mounting poverty and deprivation of every kind in Nigeria. Young people, undereducated by a collapsed educational system, may "graduate," but only into joblessness. Lives decline, frustration grows, and angry young men are too easily persuaded to pick up readily accessible guns in protest when something sparks their rage. Meanwhile, those in power at all levels ignore the business of governing and instead enrich themselves. Law and order deteriorate. The Nigerian police, which are federal, are called on, but they have grievances of their own. Ill-trained, ill-paid, and housed in squalid barracks, they are feared for their indiscriminate use of force. The military, though more professional, is not prepared for dealing with unrest -- and unrest has proliferated more and more.
Of course, this most recent eruption -- which left 700 dead, more wounded, and thousands displaced -- had its own peculiarities. Not all uprisings in diverse Nigeria are the same, though usually they are predictable. This time, the principal player was an Islamist sect based in Maiduguri in Borno state and led by 39-year old Mohammed Yusuf. Its name, Boko Haram, translates more or less as "Opposition to Western Education."
Even established leaders of Islam in the north, who condemn Yusuf's preaching, are aware of how government has failed Nigeria's young. What has Western education done for them lately? For that matter, what have other Nigerian institutions, all easily seen as Western-inspired, done for them? Boko Haram was demanding something its members believed would be better.
The attacks on police stations last week were triggered by different events in different states. In Maiduguri, just weeks before the first attack, the police had opened fire on a funeral procession of Yusuf's apparently unarmed young followers. People in Maiduguri were expecting retaliation, and Yusuf himself had declared that if he were arrested, his followers would fight back.
The outbreak of violence, then, should not have surprised the security services; certainly it did not surprise the people of Maiduguri or anyone else in Nigeria. After clashes in nearby Bauchi state a week earlier, Yusuf was widely reported as vowing to avenge police killings of his followers there. Nonetheless, those in charge of security were clearly unprepared. The police were overwhelmed, and the Army, once deployed, called in 1,000 more troops as reinforcements. The intelligence system was aware of Boko Haram and since 2007 had been advocating measures to stop its growth. The government simply ignored the advice.
Last Thursday, after a ferocious battle at Yusuf's heavily fortified Maiduguri compound, from which he had fled, police caught up with him at the home of his father-in-law. They took him into custody and then shot him dead. Yusuf's body has been displayed on state television. The first official story was that he was killed in a shootout and not at police headquarters. When the military produced photographs showing that they had handed him over alive to the police, officials offered a new story: that he was shot while trying to escape. Either way, his death is unlikely to bring a lasting end to this crisis. Meanwhile, the excessive force of the military response has compounded the misery of people in Maiduguri. As one bitter resident said, "They used a sledgehammer to kill an ant." There is now growing anger at the indiscriminate killing of guilty and innocent alike.