Two days after Borno State governor, Alhaji Kashim Shettima, warned Nigerians not to think Boko Haram would be limited to the north, two improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were found at Winners Chapel, Owerri, Imo State.
In a speech at the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, last week, Shettima had said: “If Boko Haram succeeds in overrunning the north-east as they seek, they will surely want to extend greater havoc to other parts of the north and if they over run the north, they would want to extend to the south.”
But for the timely discovery and denotation of these devices, Nigerians would be talking about yet another mass murder at a Sunday service. It has happened before in Suleja, Jos, Kaduna, Kano and Madalla ─ all in northern Nigeria. Boko Haram always claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Investigation is still going on over the Owerri incident, and it is not yet confirmed if the devices were planted by Boko Haram or by any other group, but initial suspicion will focus on the insurgents who normally seek civilian casualties.
On Sunday night, there was yet another scare. Soldiers attached to 144 battalion of the Nigerian Army, Asa, Ukwa West LGA, Abia State, arrested nearly 500 persons, aged between 16 and 24, who were in a convoy of 33 buses heading for “nowhere”.
Two of the buses sped off and escaped arrest, according to the commander of the battalion, Lt. Colonel Rasheed Omolori, who said the matter had been reported to the defence headquarters and investigations are now on.
Again, this is mere suspicion as no evidence has yet been established to prove that they are members of Boko Haram, but for now they are treated as suspects.
But the question is now being asked openly: could it be that Boko Haram is finally heading for southern Nigeria after terrorising the north for five years, during which 12,000 persons have been killed?
Despite rumours and scaremongering, Boko Haram has never launched any attack in the south. The closest it ever came was Kogi State, a northern state which shares boundary with five southern states: Edo, Ekiti, Ondo, Anambra and Enugu.
On August 7, 2012, three men, armed with AK-47 assault rifles, stormed the Deeper Life Bible Church, Otite, near Okene, Kogi State, as a Bible study session was about to begin. One of the men switched off the generator while the other men opened fire on the congregation, killing 19 persons.
There has been a series of social media-based reports of sightings of Boko Haram militants in Lagos, but none has been confirmed. Last year, there were reports that suspected militants had been arrested. The rumour mills often warned about plans to bomb the third mainland bridge and shopping malls.
In May, the United States warned its citizens to avoid a five-star hotel in Ikeja, Lagos, because of a planned terrorist attack. Coming officially from the US government, the rumour was not treated lightly and the hotel has now erected barriers at its entrance and shut one of its gates as part of heightened security measures.
Following the Owerri incident, South-east governors, after holding a meeting with President Goodluck Jonathan on Monday, warned Boko Haram not to come to the area.
“All I can assure you is that we are very alert in the south-east and we are watching what is going on. I can assure you that Boko Haram cannot come to the south-east,” Governor Willie Obiano of Anambra State said after the meeting.
Police authorities are trying to douse rumours ─ perhaps to avoid panic and paranoia in the south.
Force PRO, CSP Frank Mba, said on Monday: “The media and the citizens should not be in a hurry to link the Owerri incident to a terror cell until the full identities of those behind it are known to security forces.
“Until the motives are established, I think it will be pre-emptive for us to give it the toga of terrorism. It could be anything, for us in the security world, we live all options open, we are ready to test all hypotheses.”
Can they? Will they?
Beyond theories and analyses, however, Nigerians know very much that Boko Haram can strike anywhere they choose. They have attacked highly fortified military barracks and police headquarters, much less the highly vulnerable civilian targets.
A security expert, who declined to be named because “it is not necessary”, told TheCable: “Boko Haram launches attacks primarily in two ways ─ through bombing and gun attacks, to put it in layman’s language. They bomb mainly in the cities and launch gun attacks in suburbs and less populated areas.
“To carry out gun attacks, they usually operate from a base. They need isolated areas as bases. That is where they can retreat to after the attacks. This will be very difficult to do in the south because of its demographic pattern, but not impossible. Nevertheless, the general awareness of the threat of terror in the south can curtail gun attacks.
“However, stopping a bombing campaign can be difficult. They can make IEDs from any location. And they do not need a large crowd for that to be effective. All they need are a few suicide bombers. They do not need an isolated area to make IEDs.
“To answer your question more directly, therefore, yes, Boko Haram can strike in the south, but it would be mainly through bombing, not gun attacks. Bombers can strike anywhere.”
A senior intelligence source said although the security agencies are not leaving anything to chances, it is still unlikely that Boko Haram will strike in the south.
“For now, they have only demonstrated interest in the north largely because they have sympathisers there. When we say the north, we also have to clarify that: they have never struck in Sokoto, Kebbi, Zamfara, Katsina and Kwara. So if you are talking about pattern of attacks so far, they are focused on parts of the north.
“Nevertheless, it does not mean they cannot strike in the south just to make a point and create a general sense of insecurity. It remains a possibility, but we are not convinced yet that this is about to happen. The incidents in Owerri and Abia State will be thoroughly investigated. You don’t conclude Boko Haram is about to strike in the south without getting concrete proofs,” he said.
There yet remains a nightmare scenario ─ what if Boko Haram strikes in the south? What if Boko Haram was behind the attempt to bomb Winners Chapel in Owerri? What if the youths arrested in Abia State were actually Boko Haram militants on assignment?
“Lebanon,” an Abia State government official said. “Nigeria will become Lebanon. Let’s just pray it won’t come to that. It will be to your tents O Israel. The consequences are better imagined.”
Lebanon, an Arab country, has been through a civil war fuelled mainly by religion. It is permanently divided along religious and sectarian lines, with frequent bombings and assassinations. Parliamentary positions are designed to accommodate Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, Orthodox and Maronite Christians, while seats are shared along religious lines.
The nightmare scenario of a Boko Haram attack in the south is that there will be reprisals and counter-reprisals which will make the whole country ungovernable. The security agencies, already stretched, will be overwhelmed.
A newspaper journalist in Owerri complained to TheCable last Sunday that the Imo State governor Rochas Okorocha has flooded the state with northerners since he joined the All Progressives Congress (APC). This, he said, has made the people very uncomfortable.
“There is growing resentment against northerners here. They have virtually taken over the streets because Okorocha believes they are going to make him president in 2015. If there is a Boko Haram attack in this state, I fear for the reprisal. It won’t be pretty,” he said.
Bloodshed is never pretty.