In response to protests over the government’s inability to secure the return of the more than 230 girls still being held by Boko Haram, Nigerian first lady Patience Jonathan ordered “the arrests of two protest leaders, expressed doubts there was any kidnapping and accused the protest leaders of belonging to Boko Haram.”
To put it mildly, the reaction of the first lady, who enjoys a great deal of political clout despite not having a formal position, does not invite a great deal of confidence in the government’s ability to handle the crisis. The girls have now been missing for about three weeks and in a newly released video, Boko Haram commander Abubakar Shekau announced plans to sell them.
The abduction has focused international attention on Nigeria’s long struggle with Boko Haram, as well as the fact that thus far, none of its efforts to combat the group has been particularly effective. The police and military cracked down hard on the group in 2009, arresting its original leader Mohammed Yusuf—who was later killed, supposedly during an escape attempt—but it soon re-formed and emerged more powerful and deadly than ever.
Subsequent security sweeps targeting the group’s members have, in the words of one counterterrorism expert, “succeeded in little except to further inflame public opinion against the government.” In the process, the Nigerian military has been accused of committing its own atrocities, including the killing of hundreds of detainees.
Efforts to negotiate with the group haven’t borne much fruit either—Boko Haram has splintered into a number of groups, and those who’ve participated in talks with the government have faced violent reprisals from other members.
Boko Haram isn’t the first insurgent group to take root in Northern Nigeria, and it seems likely that religious violence will continue to haunt the region unless steps are taken to address the poverty, inequality, and corruption that fuel it. Boko Haram’s stated goals may be to eliminate Western influence and establish Shariah law, but at its core, it is also “a movement of grassroots anger among northern people at the continuing depravation and poverty in the north.”
Predominantly Muslim Northern Nigeria has been, for the most part, been left out of the country’s recent economic progress. In Boko Haram’s home base in the country’s northeast, 70 percent of people live on less than a dollar a day, compared with 50 percent in the south. Illiteracy, malnutrition, and infrastructure problems are fare more acute in the north.
The widespread perception of political corruption and the justifiable sense that the north isn’t benefiting from the more than $80 billion the country brings in annually through oil exports—the oil is produced in the southeast—have helped groups like Boko Haram draw in new members.
As one Nigerian journalist put it, “Corruption became the catalyst for Boko Haram. [Mohammed] Yusuf [the group’s first leader] would have found it difficult to gain a lot of these people if he was operating in a functional state. But his teaching was easily accepted because the environment, the frustrations, the corruption, [and] the injustice made it fertile for his ideology to grow fast, very fast, like wildfire.”
At the moment, amid mounting public frustration, Goodluck Jonathan’s government faces the immediate task of rescuing hundreds of girls from a horrifying fate. But in the long term, neither harsher crackdowns nor appeasement seem likely to quell extremism in the north the country that is eager to brand itself as Africa's largest economy takes real steps to tackle poverty and corruption.