After School Attack, Nigeria's President Calls For Unity

Nigeria's president is urging his countrymen to overcome their religious and ethnic divisions to avoid the fate of Syria. His comments followed a massacre at a school over the weekend that the government blames on a militant Islamic group. Renee Montagne talks to Tomi Oladipo, of the BBC, about the threat the group poses to Nigerian society.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The president of Nigeria is calling on his country to overcome its religious and ethnic divisions and to avoid becoming another Syria. President Goodluck Jonathan's warning came after an attack last weekend on a school there. At least 40 students died when gunmen stormed an agricultural school in Nigeria's mostly Muslim northeast.

This was just one incident in a series of mass killings that Nigerian officials blame on Boko Haram, a militant Islamist group believed responsible for thousands of deaths in the last few years. The BBC's Tomi Oladipo has been covering the violence and he joins me now from Lagos, Nigeria. Welcome.

TOMI OLADIPO: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Now, remind us first just briefly what Boko Haram is and what their goals are.

OLADIPO: Well, Boko Haram came into the limelight in about 2009, although it's been there for many years. But it really got the nation's attention and it's been carrying out a campaign of violence across the north of Nigeria, but mostly in the northeast. That's where the group is based.

And they've been attacking pretty much everyone from schools, as we've seen in this case, to churches, restaurants, everything possible has been attacked. Even mosques as well. They just go after anybody who's not in line with their ideology.

MONTAGNE: And their ideology, though, is what?

OLADIPO: Boko Haram is against the establishment and they're against Western ideals, Western culture, and they want an Islamist state. That's what they're calling for. So they want to overthrow the government.

MONTAGNE: And does it have international links?

OLADIPO: That is not official at the moment. I mean we don't really know. We can't prove any international links. There have been suggestions that the group is linked to al-Qaida in the Maghreb. That's in North Africa. There have also been suggestions they could be linked with Al Shabab in East Africa. So that's not exactly clear.

Boko Haram themselves have not said who they're linked with. We can only just try to join the dots from what we see in the similarities and the ideologies and the way they work.

MONTAGNE: And I gather that Nigerian security forces have responded very strongly and also have themselves been very brutal.

OLADIPO: Yes. There are three states in the northeast which are worst affected by this violence and the government declared a state of emergency there, sending extra troops into the area. And these troops have been arresting people. They're trying to crack down on Boko Haram. Now, one thing about Boko Haram is that you can't know exactly who they are.

They don't have any particular features anyone can point them out. So I think that has been one of the main problems for the authorities. How do you find these people and how do you arrest them? I've been to that region recently and there are lots and lots of checkpoints where they stop every single car and search people and make many arrests every single day.

MONTAGNE: And President Goodluck Jonathan made his comparison to Syria yesterday on Nigeria's Independence Day. It's a huge country though. Is Nigerian society really in that much danger from this group?

OLADIPO: A lot of Nigerians would say no. They would say that's a gross exaggeration. But at the same time, we really don't know the exact scale of the violence. Some people will say it's a lot more serious than we report. When the government declared a state of emergency in the northeast, the military cut down the mobile phone network, so it's very hard to get information out of these places.

And parts of the northeast are very remote so by the time the news of these attacks gets out, it's several days later in many cases. So some people would say, yes, the violence there is really, really serious and there should be more attention paid to it.

MONTAGNE: Tomi Oladipo covers Nigeria for the BBC, speaking to us from Lagos. Thanks very much.

OLADIPO: You're welcome.

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