Nigeria needs to pull together if Boko Haram is to be subdued

Nigeria's booming economy is being counterweighed by its troubles with Islamic terror groups like Boko Haram, which wants a Sharia state.

Less than a month ago, on April 6, Nigeria established its credentials as an economic heavyweight of the future. After months of deliberation, the National Bureau of Statistics declared that the economy was almost twice as big as previously thought, with a gross domestic product of $488 billion. With this statistical recalculation, Nigeria leapfrogged South Africa to become the continent’s biggest economy.

Statistics should always be taken with a pinch of salt, but there is no doubt that Nigeria is now a giant market which cannot be ignored. It is the world’s 26th largest economy, and with a fast-growing population it will become the world’s fourth most populous country by 2050, after India, China and the US,

Since that economic fillip, the news from Nigeria has got gloomier by the day.

On April 14, the violent opposition group Boko Haram proved its ability to reach beyond its stronghold in the north-east by bombing a bus station in the capital, Abuja, killing 75.

Now the country is transfixed by the fate of 234 girls who were kidnapped, apparently by Boko Haram, from their secondary school, in the town of Chibok, Borno state, as they were taking their physics exams. They appear to have been taken to the forest, and perhaps over the border into Cameroon. Latest reports suggest that the girls have been shared out among the militants as booty.

In these heartbreaking times for the parents of the missing girls, the government has appeared clueless and insensitive. The military announced that it had rescued some of the girls, information which was promptly denied by all local sources in the north-east. In fact, the army rescued none of them, though some managed to escape. Having been caught out by this lie, the military has remained silent, while local people raise money to buy fuel to go into the forest to try to find out the fate of their daughters.

Two contrasting sides of Nigeria are thus laid bare: an emerging economic powerhouse, or a terminally corrupt and incompetent state hollowed out by the oil curse.

On the economic side, it is true that by sheer size Nigeria is a country to be reckoned with. But size does not mean that life is improving for ordinary people.

Nigeria ranks 121st in the world in per capital income. Lack of electricity production capacity means that this economic powerhouse is still largely in the dark at night. There is little sign of the numbers of people living in poverty declining, and many are no better off than at independence in 1960.

The poorest parts of the country are in the north-east, once the home of a vibrant and learned Islamic civilisation but now eclipsed by the wealthier coastal areas. It is in the north-east that Boko Haram has established itself with the goal of creating an Islamic state with strict adherence to Sharia. During the four-year insurgency, 4,000 have died and hundreds of schools and government buildings have been destroyed.

Its focus on schools is made clear in the group’s name, which means “Western education is forbidden”. This slogan draws on the resentment felt by northerners at the Christian missionary schools in the south that helped to create the modern Nigerian elite.

Boko Haram has been called the “Nigerian Taliban” but there are questions whether they should be included in the swathe of Al Qaeda-linked militancy in Africa that stretches from Somalia to Mali. The group boasts of its foreign links and some Nigerians have been found fighting with the jihadists in Mali. The United States has added Boko Haram, and its kidnap-for-ransom offshoot, Ansaru, to its list of foreign terrorist organisations.

But some experts question whether it is too soon to dignify what may just be a murderous cult with a political ideology.

Boko Haram share some similarities with the Al Qaeda affiliates, including suicide bombings, but the school abductions looks a lot like the work of another band of outlaws which has no connection with Islam or Al Qaeda. In 1996, the Lord’s Resistance Army, a supposedly Christian outfit in Uganda proclaiming it wanted a state based on the Biblical Ten Commandments, abducted 139 schoolgirls. The deputy headmistress, Sister Rachele Fassera, a brave Italian nun, managed to negotiate the release of 109 of them.

The Nigerian army’s reticence to speak about Boko Haram may in part be motivated by reluctance to give it more publicity. But that does not cut much ice with Nigerian commentators, who have compared the vast resources deployed to find the traces of the passengers and crew of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 in the Indian Ocean with what appears to be the dilatory response of the Nigerian army to finding girls on its home territory.

In the long run, the issue of where Boko Haram lies on the jihadist spectrum may be irrelevant. If it inspires offshoots around West Africa wherever there are unemployed young men with a grievance against the central government, it will be as dangerous in the region as any Al Qaeda affiliate.

The Nigerian national security adviser, Colonel Mohammed Sambo Dasuki, has outlined a new “soft” approach to fighting terrorism, including a regional economic revitalisation plan for the states most affected by terrorism. Not before time.

But Nigeria is heading towards elections in February next year, which means that politicians have started jockeying for financial and political advantage.

Already there are attempts to blame politicians in Borno state for allowing the Chibok secondary school to open for exams at a time when high schools were closed for security reasons.

Despite the promising words of Col Dasuki, this is not an auspicious time for Nigeria to pull together in a national fight against the terrorist threat. Nigeria has some top-class technocrats, but the history of the political elite does not inspire great confidence. That needs to change if the Boko Haram threat is to be contained.

Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs

On Twitter: @aphilps

Published: May 1, 2014 04:00 AM

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