When a city of over 9 million people comes under almost daily assault, the police would normally step up their presence. But not in Kano.
In the biggest urban centre in northern Nigeria a new Boko Haram insurgency has inflicted a steady drumbeat of violence since carrying out the deadliest attacks in its history.
The local police – despised and demoralised – virtually disappeared from the streets after suicide bombers destroyed two of their stations, a regional headquarters and the official residence of their most senior officer last Friday.
The police stayed out of the way as Boko Haram, the Islamist extremists who claimed responsibility, pressed on with their offensive. On Tuesday night, another of Kano’s police stations was destroyed; on Thursday morning, a bomb concealed inside a drinks can exploded at a crowded bus station, wounding five people and causing thousands to flee in panic.
Yesterday, Abubakar Shekau, who claims to be Boko Haram’s leader, said in a video message that he ordered the attacks and warned: “I will give that order again and again.” Earlier, a German engineer, Edgar Raupach, was kidnapped as he supervised a construction project outside Kano, although it is unclear who was responsible.
Inside the city, knots of youths wielding sticks and bars direct traffic in the absence of the police. Meanwhile, the army enforces a draconian curfew running from 7pm until 6am, causing a nightly hush to fall over the sixth biggest city in the Muslim world. By day, the army sends a Russian-made MI-24 helicopter gunship flying low over Kano in a noisy show of force.
The disappearance of the police and the fact that Boko Haram chose to target arms of the state last Friday betrays the underlying cause of this burgeoning insurgency.
Meanwhile, the government is viewed as corrupt and unable to deliver basic services.
By seeking to overthrow the state itself, Boko Haram has fastened on to a popular cause. Quietly, some in Kano say they were jubilant about the attacks on police stations. Recent incidents help to explain why this sentiment is widespread.
Earlier this month, police killed at least seven people when they opened fire with live rounds on demonstrations against a government decision to raise petrol prices. “If the police hadn’t used this kind of brutality, the rally would have been very peaceful,” said Ashir Shariff, who helped organise the protests on 4 and 9 January. “The people were saying ‘the police are being very wicked’.”
He does not share this view himself, but Mr Shariff added that “some people who remembered what the police did to them” were “happy” when Boko Haram executed its attacks.
Kano, swirling with desert sand blown in from the Sahara, forms the hub of an arid region that is poor even by Nigerian standards. National income per capita in the northern states is only $718, compared with $2,010 in the south’s oil-rich Delta region.
Audu Grema, formerly head of Britain’s Department for International Development in northern Nigeria, said this “sharp divide” amounted to a “tale of two countries”.
He added “There is a glaring lack of social justice and equity and there are appalling levels of service provision. When a charismatic figure comes along, of course people will follow him.”
Boko Haram first emerged in 2002, campaigning against the supposedly corrupting influence of western education and in favour of the full rigour of Sharia.
This message spread across a region that has become steadily radicalised. In 1999, nine northern states adopted Sharia as the basis of civil and criminal law. In practise, however, the authorities have trodden carefully and Sharia punishments are rare.
Nonetheless, the Christian minority in northern Nigeria – perhaps 5 per cent of Kano’s population – feels increasingly threatened. “What we have seen is a confirmation that Islamisation is growing wings in the north,” said Bishop Ransom Bello, head of the Kano branch of the Christian Association of Nigeria. “This is all part of the effects of this radicalisation over the years.”
Boko Haram’s statements, printed on notepaper bearing a crest of two Kalashnikov rifles crossed beneath an image of the Koran, are passed from hand to hand in Kano.
The latest accused Bishop Bello’s association of practising “cannibalism” against Muslims. The attack on Thursday targeted a bus station used largely by Christians to travel to the south.
As a Christian southerner himself, President Goodluck Jonathan is unpopular in Kano. He has sent a conciliatory signal, offering to negotiate with Boko Haram, but pointing out the difficulties. “They operate without a face, they operate without a clear identity, so it is difficult to interface with such a group,” he told Reuters.
In Kano, the police spokesman declined to answer any questions about the security situation or Boko Haram. Meanwhile, the city awaited the group’s next statement – and (hopefully not) the next explosion.
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