Christmas Day bomb suspect's 'great escape' raises eyebrows

When Nigerian police admitted Wednesday that the top suspect in the deadly Christmas Day bombings had escaped police custody, it beggared belief across many sections of Nigerian society and got the rumour mills rolling.


Nigeria today is a nation bristling with security forces on heightened alert. Following deadly attacks by the Boko Haram Islamist group, army brigades have been deployed in some areas, a state of emergency has been declared in a few northern states, and special counterterrorism units are patrolling troubled zones.

So, when Nigerian police officials disclosed Wednesday that the suspected mastermind of the Christmas Day attacks - which claimed 38 lives - had escaped from police custody, it promptly sparked suspicions across Africa’s most populous nation.

Kabiru Sokoto, the man suspected of planning the Christmas Day bombing at St. Theresa’s Catholic Church, escaped while he was being transferred just outside the Nigerian capital of Abuja.

In a statement, a Nigerian federal police spokesman said police officers escorting Sokoto were attacked by suspected gang members, who broke the high-profile suspect free.

The embarrassing security failure in a nation struggling to contain increasingly bloody sectarian attacks was followed by a rash of official announcements denouncing the “serious negligence” of security personnel. The police commissioner has been suspended and Sokoto's escape is currently under investigation.

But many experts, as well as ordinary Nigerians, were not convinced that Sokoto’s escape was just a matter of negligence.

“It’s inexplicable,” said Shehu Sani, president of the Civil Rights Congress of Nigeria, in a phone interview with FRANCE 24 from the northern Nigerian city of Kaduna. “If you consider the amount of money spent on fighting this group and the tightened security in Abuja, it’s simply unimaginable.”

Sympathisers in high places

Days after the Christmas Day attacks, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan admitted for the first time that there were Boko Haram sympathisers in his government and the security agencies, confirming what many Nigerians have long suspected.

The news of Sokoto’s escape on Wednesday further fuelled those suspicions. “It is possible that he [Sokoto] was deliberately allowed to escape so he doesn’t make disclosures about the possible involvement of members of the security services and the police,” said Sani.

A prominent human rights activist and mediator who has helped facilitate talks between the government and Boko Haram in the past, Sani maintained that Sokoto’s escape has “raised more doubts about the sincerity of the government’s efforts to fight the group”.

Holed up at the governor's compound?

Questions surrounding the alleged Boko Haram mastermind’s arrest surfaced days before his sensational escape from police custody.

According to local news reports, Sokoto was arrested over the weekend along with a “serving military personnel” member at the official compound of the Borno State governor in Abuja.

Borno is the northeastern Nigerian state whose capital, Maiduguri, is the birthplace and spiritual home of the Boko Haram group.

Days after Sokoto’s arrest, Nigerian news reports raised questions over the controversies surrounding his apprehension, notably reports that Borno state governor, Kashim Shettima, was harbouring the suspected Boko Haram member at his official Abuja lodge.

But on Tuesday evening, Borno state spokesman Inuwa Bwala denied that
Sokoto was arrested in the governor's home. “There may be a grand conspiracy intended to either embarrass the governor and government of Borno state, or to eliminate [him],'' Bwala told the Associated Press.

By Wednesday evening, another Borno state government official did not deny Sokoto was in the governor’s lodge. But he suggested the suspected Boko Haram militant had entered the Borno governor’s lodge in an attempt to attack Shettima.

"What we've heard is that this man is in that lodge perhaps to even harm the governor,” Inuwa Bwala, Borno's commissioner of information, told the BBC. "Our governor is completely insulated from any blame or from any type of relationship with these people."

‘Right here in Abuja’

The fact that Sokoto’s arrest – and escape – took place in and around the capital of Abuja has also raised eyebrows among security experts.

Following the death in custody of Boko Haram’s charismatic founder Mohammed Yusuf in 2009, security officials say the group’s surviving senior members left Nigeria and settled in neighbouring Niger, Cameroon, and Chad in the wake of a massive security crackdown.

It was during this period that some experts believe the group established connections with al Qaeda’s North African arm – AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and the Somalia-based al Shabaab.

Nigerian authorities initially maintained that Yusuf’s deputy, Imam Abubakar Shekau, was killed in the 2009 security crackdown. But a year later, Shekau embarrassed Nigerian security officials by releasing taped messages proclaiming himself the new Boko Haram chief. Last week, the Boko Haram chief who came back from the dead released an al Qaeda-style videotaped message challenging Nigeria’s embattled president.

Security experts have long maintained that Shekau leads Boko Haram from outside Nigeria, moving between Chad, Cameroon, and Niger.

But now they’re not so sure.

“It has always been assumed that key Boko Haram figures are not living in Nigeria and that they’re coming from Chad, Niger and Cameroon,” said Martin Ewi, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, a Pretoria-based, pan-African policy institute. “Now you have a high profile Boko Haram member arrested right here and it raises questions that maybe you don’t need to look so far because these people are right here in Abuja.”

No talk of talks

Following the recent surge in Boko Haram-related violence in Africa’s most populous, oil-rich nation, President Jonathan has come under criticism for his failure to address the security threat.

The group’s strikes are becoming deadlier and more sophisticated, and have raised fears that the militants are trying to ignite sectarian strife between Nigeria's mostly Muslim north and the overwhelmingly Christian and animist south.

Boko Haram’s recent attacks - including one on the UN headquarters in August that killed at least 24 people - suggest that under Shekau’s leadership, the group has turned more hardline and violent.

Following the UN attack, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo attempted to negotiate with moderate Boko Haram members, including members of the former chief Yusuf’s family. But a radical Boko Haram militant gunned down the Yusuf family spokesman in Maiduguri in September and the talks collapsed.

According to Sani, Boko Haram has splintered into three factions. One relatively moderate wing is willing to negotiate with the government. The second wants an amnesty settlement and payment, similar to the one offered to militants in the southern Niger Delta in 2009. The third faction, led by Shekau, has no interest in a negotiated settlement states the aim of imposing Sharia law across Nigeria.

Sani insists that negotiations are the solution to the growing threat posed by Boko Haram to the Nigerian nation. “Dialogue is the only option,” said Sani. “If there is no dialogue, nobody can achieve anything.”

But the recent spate of deadly Boko Haram attacks has reduced many Nigerians’ appetite for talking to the Islamist group.

Sani maintains that the Nigerian military and security services, as well as private security contractors, have little interest in arriving at a negotiated settlement with Boko Haram members. “A huge percentage of the national budget is allocated to fighting this group,” explained Sani. “In the current situation, these defense officials and security contractors have the ears of the president.”

In rumour-fuelled Nigerian circles, many have concluded that some Nigerian security officials are colluding with Boko Haram members to maintain their share of the state’s security spending.

While there’s little evidence to prove this hypothesis, the escape of a prime Boko Haram suspect under the noses of the security services does not help disprove it, either.

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