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Nigeria’s Taliban-Inspired Uprising Worsens Divide

A mounting campaign of violence in northern Nigeria by Islamic militants inspired by Afghanistan’s Taliban movement is deepening religious tensions in Africa’s top oil producer before elections in April.

A group known as Boko Haram, or “Western education is a sin,” has carried out a series of attacks, including multiple bomb blasts on Christmas Eve in the Plateau state capital, Jos, that killed 80 people, in its bid to establish Islamic rule in northern Nigeria. Since then, more than 200 people have died in sectarian violence in Plateau state alone, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch.

The violence in the north, coupled with a festering insurgency in the oil-rich Niger River delta, threatens to erode stability in Africa’s third-biggest economy as President Goodluck Jonathan, a southern Christian, seeks to extend his term in office. Nigeria’s first international bonds fell to a record low yesterday.

“Boko Haram’s strategic focus is to attack institutions of the state to discredit it,” Jude Uzonwanne, Nigeria strategist for Monitor Group, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based investment advisory company, said in a telephone interview on Feb. 10. “They’re likely to intensify the attacks as the elections come closer and it becomes a guessing game how it will end.”

Gunmen on motorbikes on Jan. 28 assassinated Modu Gubio, a candidate for governor in northeastern Borno state, and five others, including a brother of the sitting governor in the capital, Maiduguri. The attack was claimed by Boko Haram in posters put up around the city.

Population Pressure

Security forces repelled an attack by gunmen on a church in Maiduguri yesterday, Police Commissioner Mohammed Abubakar said by phone today. In the central city of Jos, 12 people, including a policeman, were killed in clashes yesterday between Christian and Muslim groups, police authorities said.

Increasing population growth and the southward drive of the Sahara desert have pushed Muslim farming and herding communities up against non-Muslims, sparking heightened competition for land and resources. That has fueled conflict along religious lines, said Peter Egom, an analyst at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs in Lagos, the commercial capital.

“These people are now using violence on a religious platform to address their social and economic exclusion,” he said.

Petroleum Industry

While the religious unrest doesn’t pose an immediate threat to the petroleum industry, the main provider of government revenue and the fifth-largest source of U.S. oil imports, “it adds to the risks investors have to take into account,” said Uzonwanne.

The yield on Nigeria’s 10-year Eurobonds climbed 2 basis points, rising to a record high of 7.104 percent on a closing day basis, as of 6:04 p.m. yesterday in Lagos, according to prices compiled by Bloomberg. The $500 million of debt sold Jan. 21 is the nation’s first international issue and rated B+ by Standard and Poor’s, four levels below investment grade.

Hague-based Royal Dutch Shell Plc, Irving, Texas-based Exxon Mobil Corp., Chevron Corp. of San Ramon, California, Total SA and Eni SpA run joint ventures with the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. that pump about 90 percent of the West African nation’s oil.

Consumer Market

Nigeria, with a population of more than 140 million, 72 percent of which is under 30 years, is potentially the biggest consumer market in Africa, with growing demand for electricity, housing and retail goods providing new opportunities for investment, according to the Monitor Group.

Companies including Diageo Plc, Nestle SA, Procter & Gamble Co., and MTN Group Ltd., Africa’s largest mobile-phone company, have increased their operations in Nigeria in recent years. Major upheavals may also hinder the country’s cocoa industry, the world’s fourth-largest, and investments in the electricity and mining industries now being pushed by Jonathan’s government.

The main oil-producing region in the southeastern Niger River delta was engulfed by violence sparked by national politics once before, in the 1967-70 Biafra civil war, when the ethnic Igbos tried to secede and form an independent nation. The conflict claimed as many as three million lives.

“Nigerians are very good at dancing on the brink without falling over,” John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria and fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said in a telephone interview on Feb. 10. “But if you dance on the brink, accidents could happen.”

Civil War

There is no “guarantee” that civil war won’t erupt again, said Campbell, whose book “Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink,” was published in November.

Attacks by armed groups in the Niger delta cut 28 percent of oil output between 2006 and 2009, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The region has been hit by a surge of violence in recent months after a period of relative calm that followed a government amnesty in 2009 and the disarming of thousands of militant fighters.

In the north, Boko Haram is capitalizing on an upsurge in religious tension since Jonathan, a native of the Niger River delta who took office in May after the death of President Umaru Yar’Adua, a northern Muslim, won the nomination of the ruling People’s Democratic Party. That violated a party rule to rotate the presidency between the north and the south.

Jonathan faces two northerners, Muhammadu Buhari, a former military ruler, and Nuhu Ribadu, an ex-chief of the West African nation’s anti-corruption agency, in the national election.

Middle Belt

The wave of religious attacks has centered on Nigeria’s so-called middle belt region, where local communities resisted the encroachment of Islam in the 19th century before the advent of British colonial rule. After the British arrival, many villagers adopted Christianity as a defense against Islam.

At least 14,000 people died in religious and communal clashes in Nigeria between 1999 and 2009, according to Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

Boko Haram has shown a more targeted approach since it emerged in December 2004, attacking police stations in the northeastern towns of Kanamma and Geidam, where militants hoisted Taliban flags.

Armed clashes between security forces and the group in four northern states in July 2009 killed more than 700 people, including the sect’s leader, Mohammed Yusuf, according to the Nigerian military.

High profile attacks by the group since then include an assault on the prison in the city of Bauchi on Sept. 7, when it freed 721 prisoners, including more than 100 members awaiting trial.

A large population of unemployed people in northern Nigeria, where poverty levels at 70-80 percent are more than double those in the south, is likely to be influenced by religious rhetoric and will keep Boko Haram supplied with fighters, according to Uzonwanne of Monitor Group.

“The challenge for the government is to show them that there’s an alternative,” he said. “The key question is how to keep the jobs coming and then keep the streets safe.”

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