The blast, the most serious act of terrorism against an international target in Nigeria's 50-year history, has been largely reduced to a cartoon narrative: Islamic terrorists were bent on destruction of secular society. A complex set of conflicts, with a long history, got simplified, even by Nigeria's own president, Goodluck Jonathan, who vowed to bring the terrorist group, Boko Haram, which took credit for the bombing, "under control."
The Nigerian government has brought Boko Haram under control before. In 2009, government forces raided the group's headquarters in the northeastern city of Maiduguri. In the raid, the government captured Boko Haram's charismatic leader, Mohammed Yusuf. It produced a photo of Yusuf, naked from the waist up, his arms bound behind his back, surrounded by soldiers. Perhaps only minutes later, Yusuf was dead, executed. Hundreds of his supporters were also killed.
The killing of Yusuf seemed unremarkable at the time, because extra-judicial executions by police and the army are routine in Nigeria. Locals call these killings "instant justice." Human rights groups have well-documented the practice, which is partly the result of poor police training and a lack of confidence in the capacity of the Nigerian legal system to deliver accurate and timely trial verdicts. Unquestionably, Nigerians from every part of the country complain often about police misbehavior. Boko Haram's violent attacks, until recently, have targeted police officers, even killing some in their homes.
Poor policing bedevils Nigerian civil society, and no accommodations between various religious, ethnic, or regional groups in the country can stand without some new approach by security forces. As far back as 2002, when I served as a member of an Amnesty International survey team in Nigeria, reports of unauthorized killings by police were widespread and convincing. While killings of police by Boko Haram represent an ugly turn to conflict in Nigeria, they also highlight long-simmering resentments that go well beyond any fundamentalist agenda.
If the Nigerian military and police forces believed they had crushed Boko Haram by killing its charismatic leader and destroying its offices, they were wrong. The group, which favors a government under Islamic law and perhaps even its own independent nation in the north, has mounted a series of serious attacks in recent months. These reportedly include a December bombing in the city of Jos, a New Year's eve attack on military barracks in Abuja, several explosions around the time of President Goodluck Jonathan's May inauguration, and the bombing of the police headquarters in Abuja in June. Boko Haram is so powerful on its home turf of Maidugira, provincial capital of one of Nigeria's most conservative Muslim sub-regions of Nigeria, the semi-arid northeast, that BBC's superb West Africa correspondent, Andrew Walker, once described Maidugira as a "city of fear."