In recent months, Nigeria’s infamous Islamist militant group Boko Haram has increased its attacks against the Nigerian government and its people. Instead of addressing Boko Haram’s attacks through a bold counterterrorism strategy, last weekend Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan announced plans to negotiate with the organization.
Founded in 2002, Boko Haram attracted significant attention in 2009 when it initiated a violent uprising that resulted in the deaths of 700 people. Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf was shortly thereafter taken into custody and shot by security forces, and his body was displayed on national television. Since then, Boko Haram has retaliated by increasing its pressure on the Nigerian government and those it deems to be unbelievers.
While the sect predominantly wages attacks against domestic targets, its alliance with al-Qaeda poses a transnational security threat. At the beginning of July, British security agents uncovered a plot by al-Qaeda to make Nigeria a launching pad for attacks on Europe. Further reports suggest that Boko Haram fighters are traveling to Somalia and even Afghanistan for training.
In the wake of Boko Haram’s heightened attacks, President Jonathan appointed seven government officials to a negotiation committee to engage in open talks with Boko Haram and report their findings by August 16. Members of the committee include representatives from the defense and labor ministries, who will initiate negotiations and act as liaisons between the federal government and the sect. The committee also intends to engage with Nigerian security forces toward reform.
Negotiating with a terrorist organization like Boko Haram gives it undue credibility. Rather than rewarding Boko Haram’s violence with a seat at the negotiating table, the Nigerian government should focus on countering the sources of its support.
Despite Nigeria’s vast oil resources, arbitrarily applied regulations and pervasive corruption have hindered economic productivity and undermined job creation and income growth. Boko Haram also accuses Nigeria’s government—led by President Jonathan from southern Nigeria, which is predominantly Christian—of marginalizing northern Nigeria, which is largely Muslim, because of its religious identity. Boko Haram has used frustration over corruption and unemployment to target Muslims for recruitment.
The Nigerian government should work with local populations to counter extremism and make a concerted effort to improve the economy with an emphasis on creating employment, particularly in Nigeria’s underdeveloped north, and combating corruption. To reduce Boko Haram’s opportunities for recruitment, the Nigerian government must improve conditions for those susceptible to extremism. The government should also reform and professionalize its security forces. Many civilians, particularly in the north, view Nigerian troops as just as much of a threat to security as Boko Haram.