Nigeria's Latest Bloodbath: The Challenge of Boko Haram

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A man walks through the ruins of a police building after a bomb attack in Nigeria's northern city of Kano on Jan. 21, 2012

As nightfall approached in Nigeria's second largest city on Sunday, people said they could hear wailing in the air. Dozens of funerals were being held two days after a wave of bombs struck government offices in Kano, a metropolis of 10 million, just as worshippers poured out of mosques for Friday evening prayers. The Islamist militant group Boko Haram claimed responsibility for killing more than 100 in the assaults on five police buildings, two immigration offices and the local headquarters of the national intelligence services in northern Nigeria. It was Boko Haram's deadliest set of attacks yet, once again putting the government of President Goodluck Jonathan on the defensive. On Christmas Day, Boko Haram said it was behind an attack on Christian churches in the country's capital Abuja that killed 37 people. This time, the attack took place in the heart of the predominantly Muslim north.

Reached by phone, one police officer, who would only be quoted under the name Gusau, says he was preparing to leave the sprawling regional police headquarters in Kano on Friday when an explosion threw him to the floor. "The whole building shook and there was smoke everywhere. I looked outside, saw a Honda driving to the building at high speed, then shooting started," he says from a hospital bed. The Honda was packed with explosives, and Gusau was shot below the knee. "I saw bodies everywhere, shooting everywhere as I crawled out," he recalls.

Also reached by phone, another witness, Lansy, said he gave up counting after seeing at least 100 bodies sprawled around the regional police headquarters as he made his way to the main hospital with a wounded relative on Friday night. Officials at the main public hospital said the dead and wounded continued to be taken in on Sunday as people began slowly venturing out after a dawn-to-dusk curfew. One official put the death toll at 170.

Africa's most populous nation is evenly split between Muslims and Christians who intermingle freely and regularly intermarry. But that congeniality is now being challenged by Boko Haram, which means Western Education Is Sacrilege. Among its chief aims is reportedly the restoration of an Islamic state governed by a strict interpretation of Shari'a.

But the Jonathan government seems to have no idea about how to confront the group, unable apparently to figure out what kind of organization they are dealing with. To some observers, the group is a variation of a political insurgency once active in the southern oil-rich Niger Delta that had militants making money through lucrative ransoms. After years of kidnappings, Jonathan brokered an amnesty that saw former militants swap their automatic rifles for huge paychecks. "The government has made violence seem profitable, which has aggravated the situation," security expert Odoh Diego Okenyodo says. "But I am certain Boko Haram isn't religious. It seems to have emanated from political disagreements so the only real option seems to be to reach out to all political stakeholders."

That is easier said than done. "What complicates it is [that Boko Haram does not have] one single leader that we can call and say, O.K., let's sit around the table to discuss," a senior government official explains to TIME. "Different people are hijacking the group for different reasons." But how does the group seem to coordinate its actions across the huge country? "Sometimes you get the impression that you're talking about an organized movement like the IRA," John Campbell, former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, told TIME. "It's nothing like that. We're not talking about a tight organization but a highly diffuse movement which doesn't have the same traction [outside the north]."

However, Campbell says the government's slow-footed response in the face of attacks has eroded confidence. "The fact remains if you have regular bomb attacks and the government appears impotent, people are going to say the government is impotent." That feeling deepened on Jan. 8 when President Jonathan said that Boko Haram backers had infiltrated the government and security services.

Kano, a bustling regional trade center, had largely escaped the violence that plagues northeast Nigeria. Though borders were closed after President Jonathan declared a state of emergency across much of the north, which is predominantly Muslim, Kano's markets still attracted buyers and sellers from neighboring Chad and Niger. The mercantilism of Kano, which is the capital of a state of the same name, makes terrorism unpopular. "People are really angry about Boko Haram's mode of operation even if they agree with them fighting against the government," Abdulaziz Abdulaziz, a journalist in Kano, said. "Kano is a commercial city. Once the markets are closed for any reason, or once there's fear ... you can imagine the kind of resentment it creates." But the Jonathan government has so far been unable to harness such popular anger.

Visiting Kano on Sunday, President Jonathan spoke outside the palace of the emir, the traditional Muslim ruler of the region, once part of an inland empire. "Our coming today is to express our condolence to the good people of Kano over the dastardly acts. The federal government will not rest until the perpetrators are brought to book. We will not rest until these terrorist are wiped out," said the President, a Christian, wearing traditional Muslim robes. It will require more than a costume change to fix the crisis.