Lagos and the terrorist threat

In today’s world of entrepreneurial cities, at least two things matter more than size when it comes to inspiring investor confidence – urban infrastructure and security. Lagos, Africa’s second-largest city and fastest-growing urban economy, is no exception. Yet despite considerable efforts to deliver physical upgrades, instill formality into local practices and depopulate suspected brewing stations of criminality, Lagos remains cast in the ever-deepening shadow of insecurity looming from Nigeria’s hinterland.

Potential threat comes from an Islamist terrorist group known as Boko Haram – which translates to “Western Education is Sinful” – that rejects all western ideals and apparently aims to replace Nigeria’s democratic federation with a conglomeration of Sharia-ruled states. Whatever the political pretext, since the official launch of its campaign of bloodletting and intimidation in May 2011, Nigeria’s northern and central regions have been racked by jailbreaks, countless bombings and church attacks. This ongoing fundamentalist rampage has already cost the lives of over 1,000 people with 620 deaths this year alone. Many survivors have been left maimed, displaced and live under siege – hardly an atmosphere conducive to development of these severely impoverished zones.

So far Boko Haram’s activities have been confined to Nigeria’s northern and largely Muslim half and appear in no particular hurry to stray far beyond the confluence of rivers Niger and Benue towards Lagos on the coast. Yet this situation may change given the increased sophistication of its tactics, the diffused nature of pop-up factions and the risk of retaliation by the targeted Christian and ethnic minorities. Moreover, Nigeria’s intelligence and security agencies have been glaringly unsuccessful at stamping out factions and holding perpetrators to account. As Zainab Usman, political analyst with the International Crisis Group notes, “What started as a fringe, hermetic and eccentric sect in the early 2000s, wielding machetes and sticks, has evolved massively into the deadly terrorist organisation that it is today, freely employing AK-47s, Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs, and suicide bombers.”

At first glance the nonchalance of the Lagosian populace can be read as a dangerous mix of blissful ignorance and wanton disregard. Despite the pervasiveness of Boko Haram’s disruptive force and the city’s high profile as West Africa’s commercial capital, terrorism is not perceived as an imminent threat. Dipo Salimonu, formerly of Africa Confidential and now facilitator of debate platform and a public lecture series Eirenicon Africa, explains: “Boko Haram is unlikely to strike soon in Lagos for the very reason they have not done so there. They prefer attacks from which they can get away – communities where it is easy to melt into the surroundings given cover by a sympathetic crowd. They would be torn to shreds in Lagos.”

For now, life in Lagos carries on as normal, implying faux immunity. Local residents readily congregate in mega-churches, still hop from one nightclub to another, attend non-Islamic schools, and heavily welcome western capital endorsements. The geopolitical north-south divide means social and political elites in untouched regions can adopt a stance of “otherness” while decrying tragic incidents of civilian death. Embedded on the Atlantic coast, Lagos is even further removed given its governance stance, its economy, its planning vision and the distinct character of its cosmopolitan society. However, with the increasing numbers of displaced and the persisting decline of surrounding cities, Lagos is likely to face higher migrant influx – some of which may include Boko Haram sympathisers or “Christian” vigilante.

So asking whether Lagos is under threat to either homegrown or parasitic sectarian violence remains a valid question. Certain spatial qualities afford Lagos its saving grace – and paradoxically, its Achilles’ heel. For instance, it is unclear whether congested inner-city and gated communes will make it difficult for state agencies to penetrate terrorist networks, or if its fairly diffused slums and polycentric urban structure will make it harder to single out easy targets and subversively embed factions. Spatial concentration has already made it possible to target suspected strongholds, such as the five mosques in Lagos demolished under the cover of darkness and heavy police presence in March. Boko Haram sects are also unlikely to get political patronage or sympathy from South-based Muslim liberals, who make up a significant chunk of its diverse demographic and greatly influence the city’s air of tolerance. Without viable political structures or populist backing on the ground, it will be much harder for Boko Haram to secure anonymity for underground networks or coordinate their ruthless advances.

However, the arrest of Boko Haram commander, Suleiman Mohammed on May 11 2012, and foiled plans to carry out attacks in his native south-west zone, suggests the threat can not be so easily brushed off. That he was found with several homemade explosive devices and confessed to targeting notable public and commercial entities in Lagos indicates Boko Haram’s aversion to being dismissed as simply an ethnic and thus localised agenda. Ethnic allegiances appear fickle. Yet whether the Lagosian identity and entrepreneurial gusto are dominant enough to supersede deepening religious and geopolitical divides remains to be seen.

When all is said and done, Lagos has its pick of doomsday scenarios – if not Boko Haram then climate change; where population explosion fails inter-tribal warfare may prevail. Even the oppressive tax regimes that stifle business and entrepreneurial activities may be enough to trigger insecurity and curtail growth. Perhaps in safeguarding stability, it is better the devil you know than far-flung terrorists across the river. Until the next hysteria then, Lagos remains a promising centre of innovation, integration, diffusion and growth.

Ore Disu is an urban researcher and analyst based in Lagos


This article is part of UrbanAfrica’s reporting project

NB: A previous version of this article erroniously gave the impression that there had been 612 terrorism related deaths in Lagos. This number referred to national figures and has since been revised upwards.


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