It is January 2015 and the rattle of heavy gunfire and the screech of motor-bikes resound from the outskirts of Maiduguri, Nigeria’s northeast capital city. Armed insurgents of the Islamic terrorist organization Boko Haram clash with Nigeria’s poorly equipped military. The soldiers are tired, discouraged, and overwhelmed by the ferocity of this terrorist insurgency. Hours pass and Boko Haram eventually relents, forced out of the city with help from local armed vigilantes. There is silence – for now.
A young survivor of Boko Haram’s recent attacks in northeast Nigeria recalls his near death experience with one of the world’s deadliest terrorist organizations in an exclusive Al Jazeera interview, “they followed us on motorcycles and trucks. They shot and hacked at us. We were trampling on dead bodies as we ran in the bush.” He, like many others in northern Nigeria, have suffered under Boko Haram’s effort to establish a northern Islamic caliphate in opposition to the predominantly Christian south.
Boko Haram roughly translates to: “Western education is sin.” Since 2009, the group has been recruiting and brainwashing young, disenfranchised men in the Muslim north with radical religious doctrine, solidifying their belief that the Nigerian government is weak and corrupt. Poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, and weak family structures, which plague the north only help Boko Haram and its followers reinforce their contempt for Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration. So far, the government has done nothing to help alleviate the chronic poverty in northern Nigeria, and has done even less in past 10 years to prevent Boko Haram’s gradual rise to power.
Those Nigerians who feel that the government has failed to meet its obligation to them will inevitably turn to power structures that can fill these gaps. This is why Boko Haram, although radical and violent, is an unfortunate alternative for many people in northern Nigeria. The costs of supporting a group who might kill followers suspected of supporting western ideals is outweighed by the benefits they provide: an adequate education, resources, and protection.
Given the wealth inequality within Nigeria, one of the fastest growing economies in the world, it is hard to refute these allegations of corruption and state failure. There is a stark divide between southern oil-made millionaires and poor northerners. Nigeria is the 6th largest producer of petroleum in the world, the 8th largest exporter, and has the 10th largest proven oil reserves. Despite these promising numbers, most of the country’s wealth is concentrated in the south. Nigeria has 16,000 millionaires, mostly residing behind gated communities. How can the government claim any pretense of goodwill for its poor northern citizens when they rub elbows with the southern elite upper class and ignore the ever-widening gap between the rich and poor? Boko Haram has long criticized Nigeria’s wealth inequality and has used it as a platform to rail against the government.
Many northern states in Nigeria still report cases of polio, making them the only region in Africa where it is still endemic. The life expectancy in Nigeria is 52 years old. Compare this to Somalia: its life expectancy is two years higher despite the absence of a functioning government. It is therefore no surprise that Boko Haram has had so much success in undermining the government’s counterinsurgency efforts. These unacceptable examples demonstrate how extreme poverty has affected the quality of life of northern Nigerians and add more strength to Boko Haram’s argument against the government, making their cause appear just in comparison.
Not only are they winning the hearts and minds of the marginalized Islamic population in the north, they are outmaneuvering Nigeria’s seemingly inept military. Footage of insurgents rallying around Boko Haram operated tanks, waving tattered black flags in support, and cheering as they overwhelm Nigerian military bases can be seen on YouTube. President Goodluck Jonathan has refused to acknowledge that these military failures are due to a lack of government assistance, but instead calls his military “cowards.” Yet as Boko Haram grows more powerful, and moves closer to its goal of establishing a caliphate, the necessity of a solution becomes all the more critical. Recent attacks have made it clear that it is past the time for the government to point fingers, and is now imperative that the government restores security within Nigeria and bordering countries.
How can we stop Boko Haram? Many analysts agree that the Nigerian government must give the people of north what Boko Haram is currently promising it: an education and access to political and economic goods. If the government wants to win the hearts and minds of northerners, they must address the region’s chronic poverty and the growing wealth inequality. Boko Haram will no longer have the authority to claim that the government is weak and corrupt if they are able to provide their young recruits with better resources. Since Boko Haram has proven itself to be violent and unpredictable, its constituents will have no reason to support it for the benefits it once provided them. Local northern allegiance with a sympathetic and fair Nigerian government will undermine Boko Haram’s influence and will be a significant step in eliminating their threat.
Boko Haram is not a popular movement. A good majority of Muslim and Christian Nigerians do not support this terrorist organization. In fact, given that Nigeria’s population is 178,516,904 people and Boko Haram’s supporters number roughly 280,000, literally 99.9% of Nigerians do not support Boko Haram. The Sharia law that Boko Haram currently imposes on the region it controls is indiscriminate, justifying the deaths of anyone who opposes them – even Muslims. This problem cannot therefore be reduced to a “North vs. South” or “Muslim vs. Christian” feud. Boko Haram represents no person, region, or religion and must be stopped. Nigeria, whose motto is “Unity and Faith, Peace and Progress,” will free itself from the grips of terrorism once rule of law overcomes barbaric savagery. This will only occur once the Nigerian government addresses wealth inequality and extreme poverty, effectively undermining Boko Haram’s tenuous claim to legitimacy.