Why Boko Haram Has Stepped Up Attacks in Nigeria

Nigeria’s five year conflict with Boko Haram took a ghastly turn early this month when the rebel group raided the northern town of Baga at dawn, killing as many as 2,000 civilians and sending thousands more across the border to Chad. A week later, two child bombers killed at least 16 people and injured many more after detonating suicide vest at two different markets in Yobe and Borno State. These are the latest events in a new wave of violence by Boko Haram. With Nigeria preparing for national elections next month, the violence will likely both disrupt and raise the stakes even further for the already contentious elections, brining even more instability to the country.

Since 2009, Boko Haram has not shied away from violence in their fight against the Nigerian government but the attack on Baga and a nearby multinational military base may be the worst in the group’s history. Although casualty figures have not been confirmed, local authorities estimate that several hundred to a couple of thousand may have been killed after Boko Haram attacked at dawn on January 3 and hunted down those who fled into the bush. Thousands more fled to the state capital Maiduguri and across the border to Chad with many feared drowned as they attempted to swim across Lake Chad to escape the attack.

As shocking as the attack on Baga is, it marked just the start of Boko Haram’s recent violent campaign. Shortly after the massacre at Baga came two separate suicide bombings on open-air markets. In both cases, the suspected suicide bomber was a girl, estimated by witnesses to be as young as 10 years old. Concerted attacks on the Yobe state capital of Damaturu have also been reported, and cross-border attacks into Cameroon have increased as Boko Haram launched a new attack on a Cameroonian military base and kidnapped 80 civilians from border towns this past weekend. Not even a month into the new year, it is clear the conflict with Boko Haram will remain a defining feature of Nigerian politics in 2015.

However it’s not clear if the Nigerian government fully understands that. The latest violence by Boko Haram comes as Nigeria prepares for national elections in February but there have been few mentions of the conflict on the campaign trail. The government of Goodluck Jonathan has been consistently criticized in its handling of Boko Haram, largely ignoring the civilian impact the conflict is having. After Boko Haram kidnapped 300 schoolgirls from Chibok, Jonathan waited more than three months to meet with representatives from the town and accused the activists who launched the #BringBackOurGirls campaign of being “psychological terrorists.” Likewise, as Boko Haram launched their attack against Baga, government officials offered condolences to France for the violent attack on the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris while remaining silent on devastating events in their own country.

Jonathan’s poor handling of the conflict has severely impacted his popularity. With only a 35 per cent approval rating, the primary opposition candidate Muhammad Buhari now has a real chance at winning the February 14 poll. But a recent Gallup survey showed that only 13 per cent of Nigerians believe the elections will be fair. The ability of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to even host elections in the three states most affected by the conflict – Borno, Yobe and Adamawa – is seriously doubted. Although INEC recently established a task force to register those displaced by the conflict so they can vote in the polls, with only a few weeks to go before the election it is likely that many of Boko Haram’s victims will be disenfranchised by circumstance.

There is also a serious concern about election violence. All of Nigeria’s elections since the return to multiparty democracy in 1999 have featured violence, ranging from attacks on candidates and government buildings in the lead up to the polls to post-election violence in the face of disputed results. In 2011, attacks by Boko Haram also increased as election day neared, aimed at disrupting the polls. Despite a pledge by all the presidential candidates to avoid violence, recent threats and attacks on campaigning politicians suggests that 2015 will be no different. With the traditional north-south rift exacerbated by the conflict with Boko Haram and the problems with registering all eligible voters, the likelihood of a disputed poll is high, raising the prospect for further post-election violence.

All of these factors are creating a turbulent election cycle and growing instability in a country that is already struggling under the weight of the conflict with Boko Haram.  Election seasons often bring violence. This year, the situation has been dramatically exacerbated by Boko Haram’s strength and its ability to pursue its bloody agenda with impunity.