Prisoners looks through a slatted window in a police van,  Nigeria,  August, 2007.  (Pius UTomi Ekpei /AFP photo/Getty Images)

Prisoners looks through a slatted window in a police van, Nigeria, August, 2007. (Pius UTomi Ekpei /AFP photo/Getty Images)

When Boko Haram’s current campaign of guerrilla violence began in fall 2010, one of the group’s first steps was to conduct prison breaks in the northeast to free sect members and recruit escapees. In recent weeks, three major prison breaks have occurred in central and southern Nigeria. These attacks raise alarming questions: Is Boko Haram, which operates primarily in the far northeast of Nigeria, attempting a more systematic expansion southward, with these prison breaks as a first step? Or are different forces at work, including thuggery in advance of the February 2015 general elections?

Much remains murky concerning the recent prison breaks. The first occurred in Kogi State on November 2, freeing nearly all of the 145 inmates being held there. According to authorities, armed men blew open prison walls with dynamite. The police stated that Boko Haram was not responsible, and blamed “criminal activity” instead.

The second break took place in Ekiti State on November 30. Accounts describe a large group of men shouting “Allahu Akbar!” using explosives to gain access to the prison and engaging in a firefight with guards. Authorities denied involvement by Boko Haram. The press speculated that the break was intended to free a prominent member of the O’odua People’s Congress, an ethnic militia in the southwest – although that individual reportedly remains in custody.

The third incident happened in Niger State on December 6. According to one astonishing account, an advance team of three “armed robbers” stormed the prison, disarmed guards, and raided the prison armory while “scores of other gunmen took strategic positions round the prison in an operation that lasted for 10 minutes.” This group freed some 270 of the 323 inmates being held. Authorities seem unsure whether Boko Haram was responsible or not. Read more