The kidnapping of nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls has captured the attention of the entire world, catalyzing a global sense of outrage that has fueled an international campaign for their safe return. Noble as the public outcry over the crime may be, the media’s narrow focus on Boko Haram as a terrorist organization obfuscates some important elements of Nigeria’s socio-economic reality and history that contextualizes the existence of groups like Boko Haram in a nation that has risen so rapidly to a position of global prominence.
Nigeria is not only a rising regional power, but also a state that, over time, will have/has developed the capacity to compete with the G7 for economic strength. Recent updates to the measurements of the nation’s GDP indicate that Nigeria is, and has been for quite some time, the largest single economy in all of Africa. Unfortunately, this impressive evolution in development has not befallen the entirety of the Nigerian state. Since British Colonial rule, the necessary resources for development have been divided unequally along ethnic, religious, and geographic lines.
During the time of British dominion in Nigeria, governance was delivered through local leaders, and the level of development resources afforded to those leaders depended on their malleability to British interests. The British found the predominately Muslim North, who maintained an existing Islamic based social structure and system of rule, were far more opposed to the imposition of foreign institutions than their more diffuse southern counterparts. As a result, by 1950 there was only one university in the north, while a system of bureaucracy and education grew and took root in the South. Despite being home to nearly 54 percent of the population, the North produced less than 10 percent of the country’s primary school enrollments and 5 percent of secondary school graduates. Unsurprisingly, southerners dominated the government and other important sectors/public spheres. By the time Nigeria gained independence in 1960, the Western oriented, Christian south had an established institutional power base.
The ramifications of this legacy plagues Nigeria to this day. Despite the tremendous advances in Nigeria’s development, the economic situation in the northeast is appalling and getting worse. In all indices of immiseration, the North is considerably behind its southern counterparts– in health, employment, literacy, and infrastructure. Unsurprisingly, and perhaps not without warrant, the people of the North feel a profound sense of marginalization and that the predominately Southern government in Abuja does not care about their wellbeing. Socio-economic environments that combine public dissatisfaction, marginalized ethnic and religious groups, poverty, poor public health, lack of education, and an absence of state authority become obvious breeding grounds for militancy. Since 2009, Boko Haram has used the North as a home base, a staging area, and recruitment center for an ever-expanding war against the State.
The government’s response to the Boko Haram insurgency has done little to reassure the people of the North of their government’s consideration. The government has pursued a narrow military-based policy, instituting a state of emergency in parts of the North and committing to a scorched earth campaign that many in the region view as equally as violent and indiscriminate as that of Boko Haram’s. In fact, a recent Human Rights Watch Report documented a military raid in which soldiers set fire to thousands of homes, leaving hundreds of innocent civilians dead. Whether the operation was meant to target Boko Haram members or punish the civilian population for their possible support for the group is unclear. Regardless, military actions that result in the deaths of hundreds of civilians are unacceptable.
Indeed, the level of support enjoyed by Boko Haram is a question that should merit some debate. Most of the information from the North is transmitted via the Military to its commanders in Abuja. There are few foreign correspondents there and limited access to phones and other communication tools, much less the Internet. The validity of the government’s claims that Boko Haram enjoys no popular support seems dubious. At the very least, while the people of the North may view Boko Haram with anger and disgust, this does not consequently translate into support for the central government.
Unsurprisingly, the Nigerian government’s military campaign has done little to quell the violence. On the contrary, the scale of Boko Haram’s operations has only grown over the past five years. In its early days, the group’s attacks focused on assassination of magistrates or attacks on security installations. Since then, Boko Haram’s operations have expanded to include civilian targets. In fact, despite the media’s emphasis on the kidnapped schoolgirls, it may well be one of the least barbaric of the group’s recent acts. In February, Boko Haram slaughtered 40-60 young students and teachers in Yobe State, and just weeks after kidnapping the 300 girls from their school, Boko Haram gunmen ran rampant in a public market in the North East, killing dozens of residents.
The truth is that a military-only solution, especially from a military whose overall professionalism is profoundly lacking, will not solve the problem of Nigerian terrorism. Without a serious investment in infrastructure and development in the North, Boko Haram is likely to continue to have the geographical impunity needed to plan and execute operations like the one that ended with the capture of nearly 300 schoolgirls. The government needs a broader policy that corrects for the massive social inequalities in the North, particularly in education, health care and employment – “a Marshall plan for northern Nigeria,” as former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Johnnie Carson, put it. Without demonstrating a desire to include the North in the future development of the nation as a whole, the challenges Nigeria faces today will continue to act as an anchor on the potential ascent of this supposed rising power.