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Islamist insurgency darkens Nigerian leader's year in office

By M.J. Smith and Aminu Abubakar

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (AFP) - The retired general, a revered man here, reaches into his immaculate white robe after taking a seat in his living room and pulls out his Beretta, placing it on the table in front of him.

Asked whether he is afraid of being targeted, Mohammed Shuwa, a veteran of Nigeria's 1960s civil war, says, "Everybody is. We don't know who the next target will be."

It seems no one truly feels safe anymore in the northeastern Nigerian city of Maiduguri, the impoverished capital of Borno state and the heart of an Islamist insurgency that has killed hundreds.

Unfortunately, Maiduguri is only where the problem begins.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan will on May 29 mark one year since being sworn into office following elections that, while marred by deadly rioting in the days afterward, were seen as the country's fairest in nearly two decades.

But since that time, Islamist group Boko Haram's insurgency previously focused in the northeast of Africa's most populous nation and largest oil producer has spread and intensified, creating fear and deep concern over where it will lead.

The group has continually widened its targets, from assassinations of local officials to suicide attacks on the United Nations in Abuja, police headquarters and one of the country's most prominent newspapers.

Muslims have often been Boko Haram's victims, but the group has in recent months specifically targeted churches in a country roughly divided between a mainly Muslim north and predominately Christian south.

Diplomats say Boko Haram members have received training in Mali from Al-Qaeda's north African branch, and Western nations have been closely monitoring for signs of more extensive cooperation.

Discussions have been ongoing in Washington over whether to brand Boko Haram a foreign terrorist organisation.

Despite that, the group is seen as domestically focused and including a number of factions with differing aims. It is viewed in large part as the product of an unjust society that has squandered its oil riches through decades of corruption.

Nigeria's south, where the oil industry is based and where the president is from, is wealthier and more educated than the north, a region where many were opposed to Jonathan's candidacy.

Countrywide, the vast majority of residents live on less than $2 per day while corrupt elites siphon off millions of dollars. A new Porsche dealership recently opened in the economic capital Lagos, but electricity blackouts occur daily.

In Maiduguri, where Boko Haram has been based, certain neighbourhoods resemble something approaching a war zone, with frequent military checkpoints and truckloads of security forces on patrol.

The carcasses of burnt homes and cars can be seen in some areas, as well as schools that were set ablaze, at least one of which still holds classes in the part of the building that remains intact, children scurrying between the ruins.

"I'm not scared because I think the worst has happened," said one 14-year-old girl, wearing the yellow veil and green pants that make up the school's uniform as she stood near scorched cement and collapsed tin sheets.

"There's nothing left for them to attack."

There are frequent assurances from officials that the situation is improving in Maiduguri, but progress is hard to measure.

During daytime hours -- a curfew is in place at night -- life undoubtedly goes on in the city, with markets attracting crowds and traffic backed up on major roads.

But while the heavy security presence and raids appear to have limited major attacks, bombings and shootings continue to occur. An unclear number of residents have fled as well and hard-hit areas appear desolate.

"It is clear that the situation has been brought to a manageable proportion," said Lieutenant Colonel Sagir Musa, spokesman for a military task force in Maiduguri. "We are just mopping up now."

At the same time, the violence has spread to new areas, including neighbouring Yobe state, the capital Abuja and the country's second-largest city of Kano.

Some residents in Maiduguri also talk of military abuses, with soldiers accused of torching houses and killing civilians after blaming them for collaborating with the Islamists.

Musa said the military had begun to particularly focus on winning over the local population, which has been reluctant to provide information to authorities, and would pursue accusations of abuses.

There seems to be consensus that some form of dialogue will be needed to bring the violence to a halt, possibly even an amnesty deal similar to what was done in 2009 to end years of unrest in the oil-producing Niger Delta region.

Musa spoke of dialogue occurring after security forces restore calm. Vice President Namadi Sambo, a northerner, recently called for dialogue.

But the complications are endless, including determining whom to negotiate with from the nebulous group, which initially claimed to be seeking the creation of an Islamic state in Nigeria but whose demands have since repeatedly shifted.

An attempt at indirect negotiations in March collapsed, with a mediator quitting over leaks to the news media and a purported Boko Haram spokesman saying they could not trust the government.

One Nigerian security source spoke privately of the dangers in failing to tackle the roots of the problem, naming poverty and a lack of education.

Even if the violence can be brought under control, it will return in a more severe form in the years ahead if such issues are not addressed, he said.

The United States, which imports much of its oil from Nigeria, has offered training to authorities to help investigate attacks, but Washington has repeatedly stressed the need for a wide-ranging approach.

"There has to be a sound security strategy, but there also has to be a sound social-economic strategy to address the enormous poverty and immiseration which exists in northern Nigeria," US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson said last week.

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