THE BLOG

The African Islamic State

24/11/2014 17:20 GMT | Updated 24/01/2015 10:59 GMT

This year I have watched from close quarters as a country has been torn apart. A militant Islamic group has successfully exploited an opportunity to carve out a sphere of influence in a riven nation. In a society divided by ethnic and - more prominently - religious loyalties, decades of tension between communities has manifested as sectarian violence.

For years politicians have failed to reconcile feuding communities and prevent conflict, instead opting to exploit deep social cleavages in order to establish their political bases and support their agendas. Once established in office, they have utilised their powers of patronage to reward their supporters, providing jobs to close allies and offering hand-outs to constituents from public funds.

In a nation where it is accepted that the majority fall into either one of the two major religious groups, it does not take long for religious persecution to develop. For those ethnic and religious groups unfortunate enough to be in the local minority, they suffer discrimination and persecution. For others in the majority but marginalised for not supporting the winning candidate, resentment festers.

In this riven nation, an organisation which starts out as a reaction to the perceived corruption of the body politic begins preaching an extremist interpretation of Islam. Over months and years it grows in size, structure and rhetoric until it becomes a jihadist terrorist organisation. With the support of other such organisations across international borders, the jihadist group eventually matures into an insurgency which can both match the functions of the state as well as its security apparatus.

Fully functional, professional and fully trained security forces, once respected domestically and internationally, are shown to be dysfunctional, amateurish and incompetent in front of the enemy - to the astonishment of both national and international communities. As the armed forces are pushed back, the rule of law evaporates as the black flag of the new 'Islamic Caliphate' is raised.

The rise of the Islamic State this summer caught the Iraqi government, much like the rest of the world, unaware. Their success in Syria went unnoticed by international statesmen and media before crossing the border into Iraq. By then it was too late.

But I have never been to Iraq or Syria. The country of which I write is not in the Middle East. I am writing about an African country; I am writing about the nation of my birth. I am writing about what has happened - still is happening, and will happen - in northern Nigeria.

In August, the leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, announced the occupation of the remote Nigerian border town of Gwoza in Borno State. With the conflict raging in Iraq, Shekau's vocal support for the Islamic State and his establishment of a new 'Islamic Caliphate' in Northern Nigeria went almost unnoticed in the Western media.

Just like the Islamic State, a key element of Boko Haram's policy when expanding the territory they control is to 'cleanse' the population of those they consider to be 'infidels'. In Gwoza, as has been the case across Northern Nigeria, they targeted Christians. We do not know how many Christians were killed in a series of attacks on Gwoza before Boko Haram occupied the town, but testimony from those that managed to escape suggests hundreds if not thousands.

Gwoza was just the start. To date, 16 local government areas that have fallen under the flag of Boko Haram.

In July a report by Human Rights Watch estimated at least 2,053 civilians were murdered by the insurgents in the first half of the year. Unfortunately, since Boko Haram escalated its campaign of genocide in August, that number is certain to have risen.

And it is not just Christians that suffer at the hands of Boko Haram's thugs. Animists, atheists and moderate Muslims are also regularly targeted. Recently a suicide bomber killed at least 23 Shia Muslims while they celebrated Ashura in the town of Potiskum, Yobe State. Another grim and unnoticed parallel with Iraq.

This month criminals assumed to be Boko Haram bombed a secondary school in Potiskum, killing at least 47 young boys. It is a horrifying echo of a similar incident that occurred earlier this year in the nearby town of Buni Yadi, when 59 young boys were brutally slaughtered in the middle of the night.

Massacres and kidnappings in schools - beyond the worst nightmare of any British parent - are becoming a regular occurrence for Northern Nigerians.

The global nature of militant Islamic extremism and its adherents cannot be ignored. One must decapitate each head of the Hydra in order to defeat it.

In September, with support from several other heads of state, including US President Barack Obama, prime minister David Cameron told the United Nations that Britain should "do more to build the capability of the legitimate authorities fighting the extremists." He went on to say, "whether it is supporting action against Boko Haram in Nigeria; against Al-Shabaab in Somalia; against Ansar Al-Sharia in Libya or against Al Qaeda in Yemen - it is right to help those on the frontline who are fighting for their societies and their countries and their freedom."

I hope and pray that prime minister Cameron and the rest of the international community will deliver on their promise and provide the same continued support that has been given to the Iraqi government, as we too fight the same multi-headed monster.

For the tens of thousands of dispossessed Northern Nigerians, and the families of the thousands of innocent civilians that have already been lost - particularly the Northern Christian community - it cannot come soon enough.