Poverty is fueling Nigeria’s Islamist insurgency

Nigerian security forces recently razed a northeastern fishing village, leaving almost 200 people dead and destroying some 2,000 homes, in order to root out just a few members of the radical Islamist sect Boko Haram. The assault reflected the military’s growing frustration with the extremists who have staged scores of attacks in the last four years.

While Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon have condemned the army’s heavy-handed approach, this is not the first time that clashes with extremists have caused significant collateral damage – and it almost certainly will not be the last.

Boko Haram, whose primary objective is to compel Nigeria to adopt Islamic Shariah, has proved surprisingly resilient since declaring war on the government in 2009, in response to the military’s execution of its leader, Mohammad Yusuf. Using hit-and-run guerilla tactics and suicide bombers, Boko Haram has attacked police stations, government buildings and churches, killing thousands. Despite violent clashes with a special military task force in Borno and Yobe, the northern states where the sect is most active, Boko Haram remains robust.

Political sensitivities in the predominantly Muslim north have forced Jonathan, a Christian southerner, to tread lightly in his efforts to contain Boko Haram. Many northerners resent that the presidency was returned to a southerner after only one term with a northerner in office (an informal agreement mandates that the presidency should alternate between north and south every two terms).

Northern politicians and emirs (traditional Muslim leaders) have used the ongoing insurgency to damage Jonathan’s credibility, thereby strengthening their campaign to return the presidency to the north. First, they ordered that Jonathan disband the military task force, claiming that it was occupying the north and harassing civilians. They then called on him to extend amnesty to Boko Haram’s members and to initiate a dialogue. Jonathan initially refused their requests, stating last month that he could not negotiate with “ghosts.”

But, with the clamor for amnesty reaching a deafening crescendo, Jonathan relented. Last week, he inaugurated the Presidential Committee on Dialogue and Peaceful Resolution of Security Challenges in the North, a 26-member committee composed mainly of northern leaders tasked with opening a dialogue with Boko Haram and working out the terms of amnesty and compensation for victims of the insurgency.

But, before the government had even announced its decision, Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, rejected the offer. In an audio recording that he sent to journalists earlier this month, he stated that the organization had done nothing to warrant an amnesty. According to Shekau, the Nigerian government is the iniquitous party, and Boko Haram will not give up the fight.

This defiance reflects Boko Haram’s strong position. As a recent U.S. State Department report points out, Nigerian citizens’ “grievances regarding poverty, government and security-force corruption, and police impunity and brutality [have] created a fertile ground for recruiting Boko Haram members.”

In recent years, competition from Asia has weakened the north’s once-prosperous textile industry, leaving thousands unemployed; drought has devastated the region’s agriculture; and the service sector has remained underdeveloped. Millions of impoverished, unemployed young people now seek an alternative, which Boko Haram, with its incendiary rhetoric blaming the country’s leaders for the population’s troubles, can provide. With people flocking to its recruiting centers by the thousands, Boko Haram faces no shortage of willing soldiers to continue its war of attrition against the Nigerian government.

Recognizing that the most effective approach to thinning Boko Haram’s ranks is to address the north’s deepening economic and social problems, Jonathan has backed an initiative to build new schools in the north that will equip young people with valuable skills. Studies of how to revive the region’s economy have been commissioned. But such efforts will take time to yield results.

Moreover, the north’s troubles are only part of a wider national story of surging unemployment, restless young people, endemic corruption, and a growing sense of hopelessness.

Jonathan appears to be incapable of tackling the official corruption that, as the U.S. report emphasized, pervades all sectors, from the police to the courts.

In its 14 years in power, the People’s Democratic Party has failed to articulate programs and policies that offer Nigerians a new sense of purpose. Most Nigerians expect the general election in 2015 to bring in a new set of self-serving politicians with little interest in improving the situation. If they are right, Boko Haram will continue to thrive.

Ike Okonta, an Abuja-based policy analyst and writer, is currently a fellow of the Open Society Institute, New York. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 15, 2013, on page 7.




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