Nigerian Muslim sect ‘out of control’

Powerful politicians helped form a radical Muslim sect responsible for hundreds of killings this year in Nigeria aimed at seizing control of regional power and oil money – but now may have lost control of the monster they created.

The Nigerian state security service said yesterday it made a breakthrough in uncovering support for the extremist group, Boko Haram, earlier this week when it arrested Ali Sanda Umar Konduga, whom it said was one of several spokesmen for the sect. The agency described Konduga as a “political thug” who received orders from a member of Nigeria’s parliament.

Konduga, who purportedly used the nom de guerre al-Zawahiri when speaking on Boko Haram’s behalf, allegedly implicated a member of the national assembly in the group’s activities. Konduga’s nickname derives from al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. On Tuesday, authorities arrested and charged Senator Mohammed Ali Ndume of Nigeria’s ruling People’s Democratic Party for allegedly being Konduga’s sponsor. The senator belonged to a committee looking at possible peace talks with Boko Haram.

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Konduga has also implicated a former Nigerian ambassador, now dead, as well as a former governor in Nigeria’s north-east, in Boko Haram’s creation. Konduga said that Boko Haram expelled him some time ago, suggesting he and his supposed political masters had fallen out of favour with an organisation that is increasingly violent and strident.

“The group suspended me because they thought I was an agent of the state security service,” Konduga said.

Boko Haram has splintered into three factions, with one wing increasingly willing to kill as it maintains contact with terrorist groups in North Africa and Somalia, diplomats and security sources say.

With that wing viewing a wide variety of people and institutions as potential targets, even politicians with ties to Boko Haram can no longer consider themselves safe. Politicians in the city of Maiduguri, Boko Haram’s spiritual home, and other places in Nigeria’s mostly Muslim north-east now surround themselves with security and live in apparent fear of the sect.

Politicians in Nigeria have long been rumoured to have ties to militants. In the country’s southern Niger Delta, where foreign oil firms extract an estimated 2.4 million barrels of crude a day, politicians hand out Kalashnikov rifles to those who help rig elections. Many of those gunmen became part of the militant and criminal gangs kidnapping oil workers and targeting pipelines.

Boko Haram began the same way, as “politically [and] criminally minded field marshals” began arming youths to keep their hands on the reins of power in north-east Nigeria, said Khalifa Dikwa, a professor at the University of Maiduguri. At stake is control of power at the state level in Nigeria, controlling budgets larger than those of neighbouring nations thanks to the nation’s oil wealth.

The political scene in the north-east is dominated by the All Nigeria People’s Party, which Ndume – the arrested senator –once belonged to before joining the ruling party. Little is known about the sources of Boko Haram’s support, though its members recently began carrying out a wave of bank robberies in the north. Police stations have also been bombed and officers killed.

Boko Haram’s attacks and its factional splits make it much more difficult for the government to arrive at a political solution or an amnesty. The group’s main demand is not one the government is likely to bend to in a nation that is split into a Muslim north and a Christian south.

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While the Niger Delta militants agreed to lay down their guns for money and the promise of work, Boko Haram wants the strict implementation of Shariah law across a nation of more than 160 million people.

Boko Haram was thought to have been eradicated in 2009 after its leader was killed and its mosques left in ruins. However, the group has staged increasingly brazen attacks over the last two years, including the attack on the UN headquarters in Abuja. This month, its fighters led an attack on a north-east Nigerian state capital that killed more than 100 people.