Boko Haram’s rampage through the town of Baga and 16 smaller communitiesnear the Nigerian side of Lake Chad has likely killed several hundred people — although it now appears that the early high estimate of 2,000 killed is excessive andhas little factual grounding.
Neverthteless, the attack may end up having the largest death toll of any single Boko Haram atrocity.
The massacre in Baga is still typical of the extremist group and fits into an ominous bigger picture. At this point, the insurgency in Northern Nigeria is one of the deadliest conflicts on earth, with over 6,000 people killed in 2014 and nearly 10,500 dead since the beginning of 2011.
The trend line couldn’t be worse. According to the Social Violence in Nigeria database maintained by Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, the middle six months of 2014 accounted for over one quarter of the conflict’s overall deaths.
A line graph of deaths from the insurgency as of October of 2014 (see below) speaks to an intensifying conflict — one that, as three Johns Hopkins University scholars wrote in the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog in October, “has suffered more casualties this year than the world’s most publicized contemporary wars” and exceeded single-year death tolls from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.
The Boko Haram insurgency is alarming for reasons beyond its death count. Boko Haram has demonstrated as least some ability to strike beyond its base in Nigeria’s northeast, taking credit for bombings in the central city of Jos in mid-2014 and attacking frequently in Kano, one of the major cities in northern Nigeria and a center of the region’s centuries of Islamic culture and history.
But it’s also managed to actually hold territory in the northeast, claiming as much as 70% of Borno State and carving out a domain where the Nigerian government can’t or won’t operate — and where the jihadist group has murdered with impunity.
It’s an area that also hugs the borders of neighbouring Chad, Niger, and Cameroon, as this Reuters graphic demonstrates:
Cameroon has proven itself capable of fighting off Boko Haram. Just today, its military claimed to have killed 0ver 140 fighters from the group.
At the same time, Boko Haram rules over a slice of territory that rivals ISIS’s “caliphate” in size and grants it access to possible external supply lines. And Nigeria’s military and political elites, many of whom, are from the country’s south and central regions, seem both unwilling and unable to tackle the problem.
For now, the Boko Haram crisis has received far less media attention than wars of comparable severity, despite the group’s possible connections to Al Qaeda and self-professed kinship with other jihadist radicals the world over.
The conflict zone is extremely isolated and dangerous. Few journalists or government officials are even capable of travelling to the site of this week’s massacre. Estimates of the death toll are based on second or third-hand information — although 7,300 Nigerians have fled to Chad from the area since over the past two weeks, suggesting an ongoing, imminent threat to human life.
But the idea that the Boko Haram conflict is “remote” or “distant” is only a reassuring illusion. Nigeria’s economy grew 7.8% in 2013 and surpassed South Africa as the continent’s largest in April of 2014. In 2012, Nigeria was the world’s 12th-largest oil producer and the 4th-largest exporter of liquid natural gas; companies from all over the world operate in the resource-rich Niger Delta.
With around 173 million people, Nigeria is the continent’s most populous country — and a democracy as well, albeit a fragile one with an often-fraught recent history of regional, ethnic, and religious division.
If Boko Haram’s 2015 looks anything like the last 12 months, the group will expose an incapable central government while holding an increasing band of territory and killing at an ever-higher clip. In the process, it will show how a rising country’s economic promise is hostage to slow-building social and political chaos that no one has proven capable of confronting.
As bad as 2014 was, the worst chapter of the Boko Haram conflict, with grim implications for the whole of Nigeria and west Africa more generally, may be ahead.
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