BAUCHI, Nigeria – A radical Muslim sect used assault rifles to launch a coordinated sunset raid on a prison in northern Nigeria, freeing more than 100 followers and raising new fears about violence in the oil-rich nation just months before elections.
The attack Tuesday night by the Boko Haram sect left the prison in ruins and showed the group had access to the sophisticated weapons it needed to overpower prison guards. Now the group seeking to impose strict Islamic law on Nigeria may want to take on the government directly, potentially bring a new wave of violence to Africa's most populous nation.
The Nigerian government is "standing flat-footed. They're on the defensive," said Mark Schroeder, the director of sub-Saharan Africa analysis for STRATFOR, a private security think tank based in Austin, Texas.
The attackers went cell by cell at the prison in Bauchi, breaking open locks and setting fire to part of the prison before escaping during the confusion with more than 750 inmates, said Bauchi state police commissioner Danlami Yar'Adua.
Five people — a soldier, a police officer, two prison guards and a civilian — died in the attack and six others remain in critical condition.
Members of Boko Haram — which means "Western education is sacrilege" in the local Hausa language — rioted and attacked police stations and private homes in July 2009, triggering a violent police and military crackdown during which more than 700 people died. More than 120 followers arrested in the wake of the attacks last year were being held at the Bauchi prison pending trial.
Police believe the followers freed by the attack are now hiding in the mountains surrounding the pasturelands of the rural region.
"We have provided watertight security to hunt members of this group that we believe have not gone far," said Mohammed Barau, an assistant superintendent of police.
Bauchi remained calm Wednesday, as paramilitary police officers guarded the front of the damaged prison. They refused to allow an Associated Press reporter access the prison grounds. Footage later aired on the state-run Nigerian Television Authority showed piles of broken locks, burned-out rooms and a destroyed truck at the prison.
Police and military units added checkpoints along roads heading out of the city in hopes of catching escapees. Yar'Adua said his agency had arrested more than 20 suspected followers following the attack. Yar'Adua said 36 prisoners had returned to the prison on their own by Wednesday morning, hoping to serve out the remainder of their short sentences.
Boko Haram has campaigned for the implementation of strict Shariah law. Nigeria, a nation of 150 million people, is divided between the Christian-dominated south and the Muslim-held north. A dozen states across Nigeria's north already have Shariah law in place, though the area remains under the control of secular state governments.
In recent months, rumors about Boko Haram rearming have spread throughout northern Nigeria. A video recording released in late June showed a Boko Haram leader calling for new violence as the one-year anniversary of their attack neared. Meanwhile, police believe motorcycle-riding members of the sect are killing policemen in the region.
Cassette tapes of preaching by the sect once could be found across the north, said Mustapha Ismail, an Kano-based Islamic scholar writing a book about Boko Haram. Now, Nigeria's secret police arrest people for merely attempting to download sermons, forcing the group underground.
"With their members in so many jails and prisons, they are just trying to free them, at least for now," Ismail said.
The violence also comes as Nigeria's Jan. 22, 2011 presidential election nears. President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian who took over after the death of elected Muslim leader Umaru Yar'Adua, has yet to say whether he'll run for office.
If Jonathan runs, it could anger the country's Muslim elite, who believe Yar'Adua would have won a second term under a power-sharing agreement in the nation's ruling party. Now Jonathan faces new pressure in trying to put down the sect without alienating Muslims or allowing security forces to conduct a violent reprisal like they did in 2009.
"He has to make a decision and his political enemies are going to use that against him either way," Schroeder said. "Either they'll say, 'OK, he's not being a strong commander in chief and he let violence get out of hand,' or he'll clamp down and that results in a large number of civilian casualties ... and they'll say, 'Jonathan is just another butcher — and he's a butcher of northerners.'"
Jon Gambrell reported from Lagos, Nigeria.