Motorbike assassins herald rise of terror in Nigeria
A RASH of mysterious killings by gun-wielding motorcycle assassins has led authorities to declare that a radical Islamic sect thought to have been crushed last year has been revived.
Soldiers have been deployed, a curfew has been imposed and many residents worry about attacks in bold daylight that officials call a renewal of the anti-Western sect's strikes on police stations and soldiers.
An outright challenge to the Nigerian government appears to be under way, with an audacious twilight prison break last month in Bauchi that freed more than 700 - including many jailed sect members - the firebombing of a police station in Maiduguri and the killing of numerous police officers and other leaders in recent months.
The violence in northern Nigeria comes at a delicate time for the country, one of the world's top oil producers and a major supplier to the US. Though the nation remains stable, it is struggling to organise elections next year that will test the legitimacy of its young democracy.
Beyond that, the government faces a renewed threat from militants in the oil-producing south, who claimed responsibility for a deadly bombing during Independence Day celebrations in the capital, Abuja, this month.
The southern militants had been waging an insurgency for years against the oil industry, but the bombing was the first time they had struck so directly at the heart of Nigerian power.
The restiveness is fuelled by corruption and glaring economic inequality. Southern states are the country's poorest, with more than 70 per cent of the population living in poverty, according to the UN, while the few rich live in mansions behind high walls.
In Maiduguri, a hot, low-rise city of about one million people near the border with Cameroon, the discontent is tinged with religion. Islamic law is in force, as it is across Nigeria's north, but not strictly enough for the sect, Boko Haram, whose name is an expression in the local language, Hausa, indicating disgust with Western education.
In the market, men in flowing robes expressed anger at the government, which violently suppressed Boko Haram in a military operation last year that killed around 800 people, but not at the sect members suspected of the recent killings.
Cloth trader Alhaji Abdullahi Malari said: "It's the government's fault. Our representatives and our government are not sincere. What one person acquires is enough to care for a massive amount of people."
A twine merchant, Alhaji Abu Abaja, agreed: "If government money was equally shared, there would not be this problem."
Last year's bloodshed and destruction are visible in buildings that remain riddled with bullet holes and burned-out vehicles that have still not been cleared. It did little to address the underlying social problems that led to unrest, just as it apparently failed to stop the sect's campaign.
"It's an actual insurrection," said Paul Lubeck, a specialist on northern Nigeria at the University of California. "The attack on the Bauchi prison is much more sophisticated than anything that's been seen. They're drawing, for cannon fire, on massive poverty."
The police here say 11 people have been gunned down in Maiduguri since July - the local news media count 14, including six policemen - in a series of killings by stocky, taciturn men on motorcycles wielding Kalashnikov rifles, who shoot their victims and drive off, sometimes firing into the air for good measure.
Two more policemen were killed in Bauchi last week, prompting a night-time motorcycle ban, along with the one already in force in Maiduguri.
The police, as symbols of hated government authority, are particular targets, as they have been during religious unrest in the past. But some killings have aroused particular fear because of the widening circle of victims.
The national vice-chairman of the All Nigeria People's Party, Alhaji Awana Ali Ngala, was killed in his living room on 6 October. Three days later, Sheik Bashir Mustapha, a prominent Islamic cleric critical of Boko Haram, was killed while teaching in his home.
About 250 miles away, on the muddy streets behind the Bauchi prison, there was sympathy for the sect. "Boko Haram is fighting the government because of the level of injustice," said Dan Lami Aminu, a mechanic. "All the people are in support."
The jubilant former prisoners marched past Mohammadu Bello's tyre repair shack that evening. "What they did was right," Bello said. "There is serious injustice."
However, the wave of recent killings has fed apprehension. The night-time streets in Maiduguri, controlled by soldiers at numerous checkpoints, are deserted. A list of prominent targets - opponents of the sect - is believed to be circulating.
A sociologist at the university, Abdul Mumin-Sa'ad, spoke reluctantly: "You don't know when it's going to be next, or who. It's a very scary situation."
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