When Boko Haram, a Nigerian terrorist insurgency, reemerged from its year-long hiatus in 2010, few in Washington took notice. The bombing of the United Nations headquarters last August in Abuja changed this.
Last November, the Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence of the House Homeland Security Committee released a report and held a hearing on the overlooked threat that Boko Haram poses to U.S. interests and security. And, yesterday, the Senate Subcommittee on African Affairs held a hearing that, though not dedicated to Boko Haram, provided broad assessment of security, trade, and governance in Nigeria. Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson gave credit to the modest advancements the government has achieved in combating Nigeria’s institutionalized corruption, but the realities of the security crisis overshadowed his optimism.
Despite its lofty talks of combating Boko Haram and ensuring the safety of Nigeria, Nigeria’s government has failed to develop a useful counterterrorism strategy. Haphazard tactics—such as initiating negotiations with Boko Haram intermediaries, declaring a state of emergency in three states, and increasing the military presence in the north—haven’t worked.
Rather, more attention should be paid to northern Nigeria and the poor social and economic conditions that are exploited by Boko Haram to drive resentment among the northern population. Northern Nigerians are significantly marginalized and are not provided the same opportunities and benefits that those in the rest of the country enjoy. Approximately 76 percent of northerners live on less than a dollar per day. Schools are underfinanced, and the standard of education is so poor that graduates are often unfit for employment. Nigeria’s aggressive security forces aggravate this resentment with unprofessional and abusive conduct.
In his testimony, Carson recommended (as does last week’s Heritage Foundation Issue Brief) that Boko Haram be countered through a comprehensive approach, primarily addressing the disenfranchisement of northerners. If the central government works with reliable northern leaders to build trust and remedy social and economic disparities (e.g., education, health care, infrastructure, and employment), northerners will be less vulnerable to Boko Haram recruitment.
In his December 2011 Washington Times op-ed, Nigerian national security adviser General Owoye Azazi argued that the U.S. is not doing enough to combat the threat that Boko Haram poses to the U.S. While the U.S. can and should do more (see Heritage recommendations), ultimately it is incumbent on Abuja to demonstrate the political will necessary to combat the Boko Haram threat.