IT IS unclear how many people were killed in the fishing town of Baga in the north-eastern Nigerian state of Borno on April 18th and 19th as a result of fighting between Boko Haram, an extreme Islamist group, and Nigeria’s security forces. Some put the death toll as high as 188, with more than 2,000 houses destroyed. Such figures have proved impossible, so far, to verify. The government suggests that the death toll reported by the foreign media “may be grossly exaggerated”. What is plain is that an unusually bloody battle took place, that Boko Haram (“Western education is sinful”) is as active and violent as ever, and that the security forces are no less hamfisted in their response, with the result that they often kill more civilians than insurgents. In seeking to snuff out Boko Haram, the army continues to fuel anger among local northerners towards the authorities, if not outright sympathy for the rebels.
President Goodluck Jonathan seems belatedly aware that the insurgency cannot be suppressed purely by force. On April 24th he set up a “committee on dialogue and peaceful resolution of security challenges” to seek out Boko Haram leaders in the hope of negotiating with them. It is understood that an amnesty as well as a ceasefire would be part of any deal.
Previous attempts at talks have made little headway, partly because no one is certain who or where Boko Haram’s leaders are and partly because the extreme nature of its ideology makes negotiation hard to broach. At the least, the rebels want a more rigorous imposition of sharia law in northern Nigeria and the release of thousands of prisoners. To complicate matters, some of the worst violence is being perpetrated by Ansaru, an even more extreme group that broke away from Boko Haram. Ansaru follows a more international jihadist agenda (including a caliphate across the southern Sahara), whereas Boko Haram seems to focus on grievances more specific to northern Nigeria. By contrast, militants in the oil-rich Delta at the southern end of Nigeria have had more modest ambitions, enabling them to agree to stop fighting in return for an amnesty, cash, rehabilitation and a better livelihood.
The fighting in Baga erupted when militants stormed the town, drawing in nearby security forces. The army says the fires that destroyed so many houses were sparked by rocket-propelled grenades launched by Boko Haram. But even that is unclear. Previous military crackdowns in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, the rebels’ stronghold, have left more civilians than rebels dead. Fighters and civilians have fled to other districts in the arid borderlands near Cameroon and Chad. Since the insurgency began in 2009, the violence has spiralled far across northern and central Nigeria, reaching as far south as the capital, Abuja. Kaduna and Kano, the north’s two biggest cities, are now afflicted by Ansaru as well as by Boko Haram.
When it began, Borno was the eye of the storm. In 2011, together with its neighbouring state, Yobe, it experienced nearly three-quarters of the attacks. But last year the violence spread dramatically: a good half of it was in other states. Between July 2011 and February this year the death toll from violence initiated by Boko Haram rose to more than 2,600, according to experts at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations. Two-thirds of those deaths were attributable directly to Boko Haram; the rest were victims of either side, often caught in the middle. Those figures are distinct from nearly 1,800 deaths in the same period in incidents resulting from sectarian violence, often in mixed places such as Jos, a city in Plateau state where relations between Christians and Muslims have been tense.
The government has drastically increased its defence budget. Last year it gobbled up nearly a quarter of the national cake. But the violence shows no sign of abating—witness the horror in Baga. Weapons are smuggled across porous borders between north-east Nigeria and Chad. Clashes occur almost every day. The government authorities can barely operate in parts of the north; in Borno, says a security expert, ten out of the state’s 27 districts are virtually off-limits, with council chairmen fleeing their posts. As jihadists get chased out of northern Mali, some may head for northern Nigeria with relatively sophisticated weapons such as the rocket-propelled grenades used in Baga. Unless Mr Jonathan’s dialogue committee can get going fast, the outlook seems bleak.