Briefing Note: Terror and Legitimacy in Nigeria

At a Glance

Briefing Note: Terror and Legitimacy in Nigeria

04 Dec 2014

The attack on Kano's Central Mosque on Friday 28 November 2014, while vicious on a scale rarely seen previously, is not necessarily a turning point in the ongoing battle to control Nigeria's religious narrative.

During Friday prayers on 28 November, multiple bombs exploded outside and within the Central Mosque in Nigeria's Kano state. With over 100 dead and estimates of 270 injured, the attack was a singular demonstration of the battle for religious legitimacy and control of the nation's religious narrative between the traditional Muslim leadership and various modern insurgencies, of which Boko Haram is currently the deadliest. The attack graphically demonstrated that the use of spectacular terror attacks as propaganda and to undermine the legitimacy of the enemy is a core tactic.

No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, though Boko Haram is the most immediate suspect in attacks such as this. Another suspect is Ansaru. The groups splintered over the high proportion of Muslim victims in Boko Haram attacks. Multiple sources also state that Ansaru issued a statement of condolence to the Kano bombing victims. While some analysts speculate that Boko Haram and Ansaru have reunited, the causes of the initial split make it unlikely that Ansaru carried out the Kano attack.

In his Friday sermon the week prior to the attack, the emir of Kano, Muhammad Sanusi, said "people must stand resolute in the face of attack and not abandon their towns, women and children... people must not wait for soldiers to protect them. There are even instances where soldiers on ground ran away in the face of attack". Emir Sanusi was out of the country during the attack, but many commentators state that the bombing of the mosque during the same prayers a week later is unlikely to be a coincidence. However, there is not yet solid evidence that Boko Haram perpetrated the attacks. The group normally claims responsibility for their attacks, especially ones of such infamy. These are normally in the form of a video message from the group's leader Abubakar Shekau. That said, there is often a delay between an attack and the claim of responsibility; as yet, no one has claimed responsibility for the Kano attack.

Places of worship, along with security service and education buildings are common targets for Boko Haram; these are the public faces of the power of the federal government based in Abuja and the traditional religious leadership of Nigeria which Boko Haram seeks to degrade and destroy. Boko Haram feels that, by cooperating with the federal government, religious leaders have lost the legitimacy to lead Muslims in the country. Boko Haram has declared the traditional Muslim leadership – of which the emir of Kano is considered one of the three most influential – to be unbelievers.

The Nigerian state can offer neither security nor justice

Statements from the group claim that the federal government is not legitimate because it is not Islamic, it does not provide justice to the poor, is corrupt and predatory against its own citizens. The institution of democracy itself is seen as an insult to God and an imposition by the imperial West. As the main mosque in the Kano state capital, it is likely the place of worship of Kano's governor Rabi'u Musa Kwankwaso, a member of the opposition All Progressives' Congress party and a potential presidential candidate in 2015. If there was a target for the attack, it could have been Kwankwaso as well as Emir Sanusi.

If Boko Haram is responsible, this attack would not represent a new tactic, however its scale represents a singular statement to the traditional Nigerian Muslim leadership and an escalation of an ongoing tactic of targeting places of worship as well as religious and political leaders known to be critical of the group.

The attack demonstrated the centrality of terror in undermining the enemy's legitimacy

It is possible that Boko Haram was not responsible for the attack, or, if it was, that it was not in response to the emir's sermon the previous week. The state does not have a monopoly on violence in Nigeria, but nor does Boko Haram. Kano has historically served as an epicentre of religious ferment and it is possible that local agitators were responsible for this attack. Emir Sanusi, on his return to the country the day after the attack, defiantly conducted the Saturday evening prayers in the Central Mosque, saying that "Muslims will not be intimidated into abandoning Islam" and that evidence so far pointed to the probability that the attack had been planned for months.

Despite the emir's words, many Nigerians find it difficult not to be intimidated, especially when they are caught between Boko Haram and security forces abuses. A recent video, " Nigeria's Hidden War", graphically illustrates why so many villagers, even when faced with Boko Haram atraocities, are more reluctant of turning to the security forces for help.

Meanwhile Boko Haram atrocities continue to escalate. They have fully embraced the impact of terror tactics. They record and broadcast beheadings, throat slitting and stoning and beginning in 2014 have begun using women as suicide bombers. The group seems to have embraced the unique horror such acts inspire and are employing it as a deliberate propaganda tactic.

Among Northern Nigerians especially, there is an increasing conclusion that the Nigerian state can offer neither security nor justice. One theme that runs throughout the reporting and analysis on the Kano bombing is the fury of the people. Such fear and anger is understandable, but inherently unpredictable. There are reports that worshippers barred the security forces from entering the mosque directly following the explosions, angry with them for failing to ensure security. Three of the gunmen who opened fire subsequent to the explosions were overpowered by their intended victims, beaten and burned to death. There were also riots protesting the continued failure of the government to ensure peace and security.

As the election season heats up in Nigeria (elections are scheduled nationwide for mid-February 2015) those emotions, despair and fury are likely to be harnessed by individuals and groups to further destabilise the country.