As the muffled boom of a distant bomb set off by militants gives way seconds later to the clatter of government soldiers' automatic gunfire, Satu Mari listens in the car park of the hotel he owns in Maiduguri, a city in Nigeria's turbulent north-east. "Bomb is our daily bread," he says casually. "Bomb is our good morning and good night." Maiduguri is sliding towards a full-blown guerrilla war and Mr Mari runs one of the few businesses with a bright future. He lodges army officers.
The government is sending thousands of troops to Nigeria's north to fight Islamist militants said to have emerged from a small cult in the past decade. Known as Boko Haram, it is blamed for nearly every act of violence now occurring in Africa's most populous nation, some 160m-strong. After a wave of attacks on banks and prisons in late 2010, the militants are said to have moved up a notch, murdering politicians and poll workers in the run-up to elections in March and April last year. They are also blamed for bombs that went off at the heavily guarded national police headquarters and at the offices of the UN in the capital, Abuja. And for the second year in a row Boko Haram is said to have attacked Christmas church services.
All of this seems well beyond the capabilities of a small cult known mainly for its views on secular education. Boko Haram in Hausa, the main language of the north, means "Western learning is forbidden". The frequency and sophistication of the violence has led many, especially in America, to suggest that the group is getting support from international terrorist networks. Algeria's branch of al-Qaeda and, more improbably, Somalia's Shabab have been mentioned. Nigeria's government, keen to win lucrative grants as a front-line ally in the West's "global war on terror", has encouraged such explanations.
Religious and political leaders in the mainly Muslim north, however, see things differently. To them, the internationally connected, ferociously active Islamist fringe group described by officials is largely an imaginary bogeyman. They say there are some genuine religious fanatics in the north but suggest Boko Haram has been co-opted into a murky mix of criminal opportunists and disgruntled political operators. "It's something like a Bermuda triangle." says Kashim Shettima, the governor of Borno State, where the group originates. "Boko Haram has become a franchise that anyone can buy into."
Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria's president, seems in two minds. He has claimed that Boko Haram and its sympathisers have infiltrated all branches of the government, including the army and police. "Some continue to dip their hands and eat with you, and you won't even know the person who will point a gun at you or plant a bomb behind your house," he told a church congregation in Abuja.
The president, a Christian who is unpopular in the Muslim north, is following the advice of his top security men baying for blood. He has put much of the north under a state of emergency. He appears ready to give the armed forces and police a free hand to run large-scale operations. And he is set to spend an astonishing 20% of the federal budget on security this year.
Some fear that such measures may make matters worse. Already deployed in parts of the north, troops are seen by locals as occupiers. Their high-handed, sometimes violent behaviour stokes rebellious feelings. A backlash is already happening.
The north's most urgent need is economic development. Whereas the oil-rich south is booming, nearly three-quarters of northerners live on less than $200 a year, far below any poverty line. Few government programmes really help the region.
The country's 80m Muslims blame a loss of political influence. When the army ruled Nigeria, northerners were largely in charge, but that ended 12 years ago. A sense of marginalisation has stirred political dissatisfaction which northern extremists feed on. Yet the intelligence services charged with hunting them down rarely seem to find them, whether they are religious extremists or political opportunists. While the spooks persevere, the government must quickly attend to legitimate and longstanding grievances.
So far the opposite has been happening. The government's bold decision to cut fuel subsidies from January 1st, however much economic sense it might make, has further widened the gap between rich and poor. Nationwide strikes have ensued. Tension and lawlessness have risen.
Yet the Nigerian state has shown it can end an insurgency if it plays its cards right. Until a few years ago most political violence in Nigeria took place in the Niger delta in the south. Just as in today's north, residents complained of corruption, poverty, inequality and lack of development. Some delta people backed armed groups; others benefited from their largesse. In the first nine months of 2008, 1,000 or so people were killed in the unrest and nearly 300 taken hostage. Over the years, the cost to Nigeria through pipeline sabotage and oil theft was estimated at nearly $24 billion.
But a deal in 2009 that included an amnesty brought relative peace to the region. Militants were offered an unconditional pardon and cash. Around 26,000 accepted. According to official figures, 15,000-plus former militants have had vocational training or a formal if belated education.
Though the delta is much safer, the amnesty programme has yet to bring total peace. And it has been expensive. Repentant militants each got $393 a month in cash plus food allowances during rehabilitation. In this year's government's budget, $458m will be spent on sustaining the amnesty—more than is given to the Universal Basic Education Commission, which provides free primary education. Some say Boko Haram's real aim is not an Islamist state but a slice of the amnesty cake. If so, the government should at least explore such a possibility.