The perceived failure of Nigeria's government to confront the Islamist group Boko Haram is likely to lead to an increase in vigilante attacks by civilians. This is especially the case following Boko Haram's bombings of various churches on December 25 2011, which killed around 50. Sectarian violence between Muslims/northerners and Christians/southerners has the potential to lead to a civil war. We assess that the primary way to constrain Boko Haram is to either arrest or grant concessions to its powerful backers who are most probably northern political and military leaders opposed to the April 2011 election of President Goodluck Jonathan, a southerner.
If the government increases the prominence of northerners in the cabinet and/or backtracks on policies like the sovereign wealth fund or Petroleum Industry Bill, Boko Haram is likely to see a marked reduction in support, and therefore capability. This would probably reverse the group's growth in the past year, which has seen it expand its geographical reach and set of targets from military and government in Borno and Bauchi to more ambitious attacks like the suicide bombing of the UN headquarters in Abuja last August. Boko Haram is unlikely to be able to secure sufficient support from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to compensate for this loss.
A Boko Haram ultimatum for the more than 5 million southerners residing in the north to leave expired on January 4 2012. In the coming months, further Boko Haram attacks on un-Islamic targets (including bars, banks, Christian as well as Western assets) are likely, leading to retaliatory actions by affected communities against Muslims. Historically, sectarian violence in Nigeria has escalated quickly, causing high casualties, business disruption and damage to assets like retail and residential property. The most severe violence in 2012 is likely to be in the east, particularly Kano, Kaduna, Bauchi and Gombe, Plateau, Bayelsa and Delta. Bystanders risk becoming caught up in the violence.
The increasing involvement of organised armed groups in sectarian violence would present an escalation pathway to north-south civil war. Such groups in the south would include former Niger Delta militants and other ethnic militias, like the Oodua People's Congress from Lagos. On December 27, in Sapele, Delta state, the Egbesu Fraternity ethnic militia claimed responsibility for an IED attack on an Islamic school and gave Hausas and Muslims two weeks to leave the Niger Delta region.
Nigeria experienced five successful coups and four failed attempts between 1966 and 1994. The majority were mounted by northern officers, often using the spectre of north-south civil war as justification. President Jonathan has already reshuffled the military leadership. Nevertheless, risks of defections and coup attempts by mid-ranking northern officers would increase if northern civilians suffer high casualties, either due to escalating sectarian violence or the ensuing military response.
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