Boko Haram is Not Nigeria's Major Threat, Lack of Trust in the Government Is


In the past few weeks, Africa’s most populous nation has made international headlines, and for all the wrong reasons. Recent events have evoked fears that the Nigerian state faces an existential threat and that the hyperbolic, doomsday image of West Africa portrayed in Robert Kaplan’s, The Coming Anarchy may soon be realized.

These fears, however, are unfounded; Nigeria is not about to go up in flames. Still, the Nigerian government is  plagued by a fundamental crisis of trust that must be addressed once the current troubles, merely symptoms of this crisis, have been addressed.

Recent events have made it difficult for the country to focus on anything besides the present, and rightly so. The government’s decision on January 1 2012 to remove fuel subsidies led to a 116% increase in petrol prices and sparked nationwide protests, which some referred to as the Occupy Nigeria movement. Later in the month, coordinated bomb attacks in Kano, northern Nigeria, by the radical Islamist sect, Boko Haram, left more than 185 people dead; the latest wave of sectarian violence which has taken more than 140,000 Nigerian lives since 2009. The numerous attacks on government institutions, Christian churches, and ordinary civilians perpetrated by Boko Haram since 2009 are despicable acts and represent a tragedy of the greatest magnitude.

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Groups like Boko Haram operate on fear, so it may be heartening to know that in this particular case, the fear generated by the group may havee been overstated. Despite the havoc caused by Boko Haram, there are reasons to believe that this group may not be as dangerous as portrayed. In their paper, "Assessing the Dangers of Illicit Networks," Eilstrup-Sangiovanni and Jones point out that for all the advantages that illicit networks like Boko Haram enjoy, they also suffer from major deficiencies which often lead to their destruction. These include poor decision making and excessive risk-taking, limited scope and structural adaptability, severe collection action problems, and structural learning disabilities. All of these are present in Boko Haram. STRATFOR, the geopolitical intelligence analysis outlet, for instance, argues convincingly that, “The group has yet to display an ability to project power outside its traditional operational area into less familiar and more hostile environments.” Eilstrup-Sangiovanni and Jones also point out that illicit networks are often vulnerable to security breaches, as witnessed by the recent arrest of Boko Haram’s spokesperson by the Nigerian government.

It is clear, therefore, that given these deficiencies, Boko Haram is not invincible and will be defeated. The Nigerian government may, however, be going about it the wrong way. While the military certainly has a role to play in defeating Boko Haram, it is important to realize that it is not purely a military problem. This point was made clear by the fact that the killing of an estimated 600 members and supporters as well as the group’s founder Mohammed Yusuf in 2009 did not destroy the organization, instead making it bolder and more dangerous.

The Nigerian state is indeed under threat, but this threat does not come from the military and tactical strength of Boko Haram. The threat facing the Nigerian state emanates from a fundamental distrust of the federal government and its agents by the Nigerian people. This issue underlies most of the problems that have plagued Nigeria since its independence from British colonial rule. To my mind, the emergence of Boko Haram (and the other radical sects that preceded it), the Occupy Nigeria movement, the conflict in the Niger Delta, and even the Biafran War are all symptoms of this same malady.

Boko Haram emerged and continues to receive support because many Nigerians in the less developed North do not feel that the government in the wealthier South has their best interests at heart. Thousands of people took the streets in January because the removal of fuel subsidies was seen as cruel and insensitive to the needs of the people. MEND and other groups in Nigeria’s Delta region remain active because they have long felt betrayed by a government that is seen to be in bed with the oil companies to the detriment of the local population.

Once Nigeria gets over its current hurdles (and indeed it will), it will need to address this fundamental issue. Failure to do so will mean similar problems will arise, only in different forms. Some of the proposed solutions may be difficult to swallow such as the possibility of formally dividing the already divided nation along regional or ethnic lines, or a simple separation of Northern and Southern Nigeria, as has happened further south in Sudan. While this may not necessarily be the best solution for Nigeria (and there are good arguments that say it isn’t), the country is at a crossroads and all solutions, no matter how bitter, must be fully considered.

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