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NYT profile on Nigeria

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country and its second largest economy, as well as one of America’s top oil suppliers. Despite a return to civilian government in 1999 after a long spell of military dominance, Nigeria remains a fractious nation, divided along ethnic and religious lines.

A watershed presidential election began peacefully in April 2011, a first for a country with a history of rigged and violent votes in the 12 years since the end of military rule. The incumbent president, Goodluck Jonathan, a mild-mannered former vice president and zoologist, won an easy election victory after a poll judged by analysts to be perhaps the country’s fairest ever.

But the outcome turned violent. Mobs of Muslim youths in the north began rioting after the defeated opposition candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim from the north, failed to rein in his supporters. That set off a wave of retaliation against Muslims. In the end, the death toll appeared to be higher than in the previous election, when more than 300 people were killed.

The persistent violence has been attributed to ethnic and religious tensions, discrimination by southerners against immigrants from the north, and frustration over corruption in a country where most subsist on less than $2 a day while top officials have access to billions in oil revenues.

Overall, some 50 million youths in Nigeria are unemployed, the World Bank says, in a country of 154 million. Despite abundant oil revenues, incomes have barely budged in 30 years, life expectancy is only 48 and the country remains one of the most economically unequal in the world, according to the United Nations.

Boko Haram: A Growing Islamist Threat

Boko Haram, a shadowy Islamist insurgency, has haunted the predominantly Muslim region of northern Nigeria, surviving repeated, bloody efforts to eliminate it. It appears to be branching out and collaborating with Al Qaeda’s affiliates, alarming Western officials who had previously viewed the militants as a largely isolated, if deadly, menace. The group has called for a strict application of Shariah law and the freeing of imprisoned members in the region, where mass unemployment and poverty have helped fuel social discontent.

In 2009, the group seemed on the verge of extinction. In a heavy-handed assault, Nigerian soldiers shelled its headquarters and killed its leader, leaving a grisly tableau of charred ruins, with hundreds dead.

But by the summer of 2011, the group was striking the Nigerian military, the police and opponents of Islamic law in near-daily assaults and bombings, using improvised explosive devices that can be detonated remotely and bear the hallmarks of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Beyond the immediate devastation, the fear is that extremists bent on jihad are spreading their reach across the continent and planting roots in a major, Western-allied state that had not been seen as a hotbed of global terrorism.

In August 2011, a suicide bomber driving a vehicle packed with explosives rammed the United Nations headquarters in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, killing 23 people. Boko Haram took responsibility for the blast. The attack appeared to confirm the worst fears of Western analysts and diplomats — that repression is hastening its transformation into a menacing transnational force.

A series of Christmas Day church bombings rocked the country in what appeared to be a coordinated assault by Boko Haram. At least 25 people were killed. Until then, the group had mostly targeted the police, government and military in its insurgency effort, but the church bombings represented a new, religion-tinged front, a tactic that threatened to exploit the already frayed relations between Nigeria’s nearly evenly split populations of Christians and Muslims.

In January 2012, more than 100 people were killed in a series of attacks on Kano, northern Nigeria’s largest city by Boko Haram. The attackers struck eight government security buildings, the national police said, including the regional police headquarters, two local police stations, the local headquarters of the State Security Service, the home of a police official and the state police command headquarters.

In June 2012, suicide car bombers attacked three churches in northern Nigeria, killing at least 19 people and wounding dozens, and setting off retaliatory attacks by Christian youths who dragged Muslims from cars and killed them, officials and witnesses said. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the bombings, but Boko Haram has often attacked church services.

A few days earlier, militants attacked two churches in the central Nigerian city of Jos, spraying the congregation of one of them with bullets and killing at least one person, and blowing up a car in a suicide bombing at the other, wounding 41. Boko Haram claimed responsibility.

A Sinister New Threat: A War Against Schools

By the end of March 2012, the insurgent violence stalking northern Nigeria struck a new target: schools. At least eight public and private schools in the city of Maiduguri have been firebombed, apparently the work of Boko Haram. Crude homemade bombs — soda bottles filled with gasoline — have been hurled at the bare-bones concrete classrooms Nigeria offers its children.

The simple yellow facades have been blackened and the plain desks melted to twisted pipes, leaving thousands of children without a place to learn, stranded at home and underfoot, while anxious parents pleaded with Nigerian authorities to come up with a contingency plan for their education.

Boko Haram’s very name is a rallying cry against schools — “Boko” means “book” or “Western learning” in the Hausa language, and “haram” is Arabic for forbidden — but it has never gone after them to this degree before, analysts say.

Maiduguri, the birthplace of the Boko Haram insurgency, has become used to living under siege. Fear and an army-enforced curfew empty the scruffy low-rise streets well before dark. Nervous public officials — prime assassination targets of the insurgents — avoid speaking the group’s name or blaming it. Army checkpoints are omnipresent. The soldiers, also a favorite target of snipers, are grim-faced and brusque.

Yet the destruction of Maiduguri’s schools has bewildered and demoralized students, parents and teachers in a way that other attacks have not. The targeting of children, even indirectly, is seen as a new and sinister twist.

Transition to Civilian Rule

Nigerians, keenly aware that their impoverished and wealth-stratified nation had not realized its potential, hoped that President Umaru Yar’Adua might help it do so after his election in 2007. But Mr. Yar’Adua’s chronic ill health sapped his initial promises of reform and led to a constitutional crisis in his country. Mr. Yar’Adua, who suffered from kidney and heart ailments, died at age 58 on May 5, 2010.

The West African nation’s vice president, Goodluck Jonathan, had been acting president since February 2010, filling a power vacuum left by Mr. Yar’Adua who departed for emergency treatment in Saudi Arabia in November 2009. When Mr. Yar’Adua returned to Nigeria in late February 2010, he did not reclaim the powers which the Nigerian Parliament reluctantly transferred to his deputy. By virtue of his presence, Mr. Yar’Adua had placed a question mark over the presidency of Mr. Jonathan, a native of the rival southern half of Nigeria. With Mr. Jonathan’s election, that has been removed.

When Mr. Yar’Adua was inaugurated president in May 2007, it was the first time since Nigeria gained independence from Britain in 1960 that power passed between two civilians. Nigeria has long been one of Africa’s worst-governed countries. It returned to democracy in 1999 after a long bout of brutal military rule. The elections held in 2007 were chaotic and marred by widespread charges of fraud.

Afterward, opposition parties challenged the results in the courts, and a newly emboldened judiciary overturned the elections of the Senate president, seven governors and dozens of other lawmakers. A panel of judges later unanimously threw out a challenge to Mr. Yar’Adua’s victory, ruling that the evidence of ballot box stuffing and phantom voting booths presented by two candidates was not enough to overturn the result.

(Source: NYT)