NIGERIA’S President Goodluck Jonathan vowed to hunt down those behind “heinous” attacks that killed at least 120 at the mosque of the Emir of Kano, one of the country’s top Islamic leaders, who issued a call to arms against Boko Haram.
At least 270 others were also wounded when two suicide bombers blew themselves up and gunmen opened fire during weekly prayers on Friday at the Grand Mosque in Kano, the biggest city in the mainly Muslim north of the country, according to a toll given to AFP late Friday by a senior rescue official.
But as Jonathan spoke, the sense that Nigeria was in the grip of a deep crisis grew.
A Nigerian security expert, Ona Ekhomu, told a TV debate that the latest attacks showed that “we are at war in Nigeria”.
His description of the Boko Haram onslaught, rhymed with the view of other analysts who told Mail & Guardian Africa that the country was close to a point when “the soldiers might stage a coup and try to impose control”.
Rich poor army
The Nigerian army, one of the largest in Africa, and with a budget of nearly $6 billion - also among the biggest - has been in disarray, often fleeing in the face of Boko Haram attacks and leaving vigilantes armed with bows and arrows to take on – and frequently overcome – the militants.
Though the military budget is massive, critics say most of it is siphoned away in corruption. In addition, the Jonathan government has not not made much capital investment in the military, leaving it with old dysfunctional equipment, and little training. Faced with a fast nimble foe like Boko Haram, thought to number no more 10,000, the Nigerian soldiers have been on the back foot.
One journalist said it is unlikely the military will allow the damage to its reputation to continue much longer, which all adds to the fears about the likelihood of an “intervention”.
To compound matters, the Opposition in Nigeria have accused the Jonathan government of being negligent in the fight against Boko Haram for cynical electoral reasons.
With elections coming up in February 2015, Jonathan, a Christian from the south, is likely to see a massive vote against him in the northeast region.
Apart from disaffection about his government’s failure to contain Boko Haram, Jonathan who was vice president took office in February 2010 after the death of president Umaru Yar’Adua. Yar’Adua was a Muslim from the north.
Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has a rotational system, which has largely stabilised once coup-prone Nigerian politics, in which leadership rotates between the north and south.
After Yar’Adua’s death, northern leaders pushed to have a politician from the region take over to “finish the north’s turn”.
Jonathan beat back that attempt, and went on to stand and win a controversial election.
Boko Haram as Jonathan’s ‘instrument’
Some Nigerian blogs and social media comments have claimed that his government is using Boko Haram as an instrument to “break the north’s back forever” and weaken its hand and voice in Nigerian politics.
That is widely viewed as a dangerous backdrop for the February election.
Jonathan “directed the security agencies to launch a full-scale investigation and to leave no stone unturned until all agents of terror… are tracked down and brought to justice,” said a statement from his office on Saturday. However, most people will be looking to see if finally his government will move beyond talk and mount a more resolute and credible pushback against Boko Haram.
The mosque that was bombed is attached to the palace of Kano’s emir, Muhammad Sanusi II, Nigeria’s second most senior Muslim cleric, who last week made a call at the same mosque urging civilians to take up arms against Islamist extremists Boko Haram.
Sanusi on Saturday returned from abroad to inspect the mosque, and he didn’t sound cowed.
“From all indications, they (the attackers) have been planning this for at least two months,” Sanusi told reporters at the airport without elaborating.
“I have directed that the mosque be washed and cleaned and prayers should continue here,” the emir said.
“We will never be intimidated into abandoning our religion, which is the intention of the attackers.”
Out of control Boko Haram
“One wonders what kind of religion these people practise,” said survivor Maikudi Musa, who lost a sibling in the blast and saw another badly hurt.
“You can’t justify attacking and killing defenceless people at will in the name of religion.”
Just hours before the Kano massacre, a suspected remote-controlled roadside bomb near another mosque nearly 600 kilometres away in Maiduguri, was defused.
Maiduguri, where Boko Haram was founded in 2002, was already tense after two female suicide bombers wreaked havoc at a crowded market on Tuesday, killing more than 45 shoppers and traders.
More than 13,000 people are thought to have died in total since the insurgency broke out in 2009.
After the latest attacks, the special representative of the UN Secretary-General for west Africa, Mohamed Ibn Chambas, called on Nigerian authorities “to increase their response against terrorist threats in northeastern Nigeria”, and for additional measures to protect civilians.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon condemned the bloodshed at the mosque, saying in a statement that “there can be no justification for attacks on civilians”.
French President Francois Hollande called for a united front against Boko Haram “barbarism”.
“We must unite against barbarism, against the risks posed by fundamentalism, notably in the Sahel, in Africa,” he said while on an official visit to Senegal.
With northern Nigeria gripped by fear, neighbouring Cameroon, Niger and Chad are also concerned that the violence could spread across their borders.