Boko Haram, which last month carried out deadly attacks on Christians for the second consecutive Christmas, made the threat Sunday after President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in parts of four northern states where the extremists have been most active.
The group also threatened to confront soldiers in the areas under emergency, in Borno, Niger, Yobe and Plateau states.
Borno, Niger and Yobe are among 12 Nigerian states where shari’a law has been imposed since 1999. Plateau state lies roughly on the divide between Muslim north and Christian south. Its capital, Jos, has frequently witnessed deadly clashes between adherents of the two religions, with eruptions of violence in 2001, 2008 and 2010.
Jos was targeted by Boko Haram during the Christmas Day attacks, with a bomb blast and gunfire at a church. No-one was killed in the incidents. The bloodiest attack that day, on a church near Abuja, killed 37 people.
His state of emergency announcement saw armed troops begin patrolling affected areas, including the capitals of Borno and Yobe states. The presidential order also closed border crossings between Borno and Yobe and Nigeria’s neighbors in the north-east, Chad, Niger and Cameroon, in a bid to prevent terrorists from attacking and then retreating across the border.
“Terrorism is a war against all of us,” he said. “I call on all Nigerians to join hands with government to fight these terrorists.”
Boko Haram’s threat and deadline included a call for Muslims in the south to relocate to the north.
“We wish to call on our fellow Muslims to come back to the north because we have evidence that they would be attacked,” purported Boko Haram spokesman Abul Qaqa told reporters in a telephone conference, according to a report in Nigeria’s Nation daily. The threat was also emailed to some media organizations.
“We are also giving a three-day ultimatum to the southerners living in the northern part of Nigeria to move away,” he said.
Predicting that soldiers patrolling in the areas under the state of emergency would “kill innocent Muslims,” Qaqa said Boko Haram would “confront them squarely to protect our brothers.”
“Boko Haram’s track record of violence makes it all too likely that they will follow up this threat with a religious cleansing of the North,” said Patrick Sookhdeo, an expert on Islam and international director of Barnabas Fund, a charity supporting Christians in Islamic societies.
But Nigeria Police spokesman Yemi Ajayi called the threat “baseless, empty, and just [designed] to create confusion and fear into the hearts of the people.”
He urged people to go about their normal business without fear, and said police were ready to protect all Nigerians, irrespective of where they live.
According to some reports, even before the threat was announced tens of thousands of people had moved south from northern areas following the recent attacks.
The Assembly of Muslims in Nigeria in a statement condemned the Boko Haram violence and called on Muslim and Christian leaders to deal with the crisis with “caution and maturity.”
‘Bold as Joshua’
As the government mulls its response to the crisis, some are suggesting entering into some type of dialogue with Boko Haram.
In an interview with Reuters, national security advisor Gen. Owoye Azazi suggested that the government could try to negotiate with members of the group via “back channels.”
But Jonah Jang, the governor of Plateau state and a member of Jonathan’s political party, urged the president to resist any advice to negotiate with the terrorists.
“President Jonathan should be wary of bad advisers who may want to give him pieces of advice that are counter-productive,” he was quoted as saying during a prayer service in Jos.
“President Jonathan should be as bold as the biblical Joshua, who led the people of Israel from captivity into the promised land,” said Jang. “The president should not allow anything to distract him from achieving his vision of bringing Nigerians out of the woods.”
Christian leaders are also divided about how to respond to the violence.
Christian Association of Nigeria president Ayo Oritsejafor warned that Christians would be forced to defend themselves if attacked by Boko Haram again.
But the head of a Lagos-based non-denominational church, Deeper Christian Life Ministry, told a press conference that retaliation was contrary to biblical teaching. William Kumuyi warned that Nigeria could be thrown into anarchy if Christians turned to violence or took up arms, and this could lead to another civil war.
More than 1.2 million people died during the 1967-1970 civil war, precipitated by the attempted secession of parts of south-east Nigeria and formation of the self-declared state of Biafra.
‘Nigeria qualified for Islamic liberation’
Following the Christmas Day attacks, Republican presidential hopeful and Texas Gov. Rick Perry in a statement said the U.S. must “stand with our allies to support the Nigerian government in the aftermath of the attacks.”
“The terrorist activities of Boko Haram are particularly worrisome for the United States because of the organization’s affiliation with al-Qaeda,” he said. “Through this connection, Boko Haram may eventually threaten not only the people of Nigeria who wish to live free under the democratic rule of law, but also free peoples everywhere.”
Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, is the world’s seventh-largest oil exporter. Its 155 million people are roughly 50 percent Muslim and 40 percent Christian.
A U.N. body that monitors racial discrimination estimated last year that more than 13,500 people had died in ethnic and religious violence in Nigeria over the previous decade.
Known locally as the “Taliban,” Boko Haram opposes non-Islamic education, science and culture. It actively recruits young men and wants universal enforcement of shari’a in Nigeria. Its leader, Mohammed Yusuf, died in police custody in July 2009 but the group has become even more active since then.
Christians are the primary target of its attacks, although a suicide bombing at United Nations headquarters in Abuja last August left 25 dead.
In an audio message in 2003, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden named Nigeria as one of six “most qualified regions for liberation” by Islamic fighters, and called on Muslims in the six countries to take steps “to establish the rule of Allah on earth.” (The other five were Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Pakistan, Morocco and Jordan.)
Opinion surveys indicate significant support for radical views among Nigeria’s Muslims.