Boko Haram’s bloody weekend attacks in Nigeria’s most important Islamic city, Kano, following unrelated countrywide protests over the end of a decades-old fuel subsidy underscore the fact that business as usual is no longer good enough. Only genuine reform of Nigeria’s political economy can pull it back from the brink.
By partly reinstating the fuel subsidy, coupled with alleged payoffs to labor leaders and a certain amount of oppression, the government of President Goodluck Jonathan was able to subdue protests that brought the country to a halt for a week. But with Boko Haram, the radical Islamic movement that has been gripping the northeastern part of the country, a similar response is unlikely to work.
During previous insurrections, the government responded with handouts and military intervention. In the Niger Delta, the country’s oil-producing region, former President Umaru Yar’Adua was only able to end the revolt by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta with payoffs to warlords (and, it is whispered, certain politicians) under the auspices of an “amnesty” for militants. But the government did not address the fundamental grievances — a perceived unfair allocation of oil revenue to the Delta region — that fueled the uprising.
There are some similarities between MEND and Boko Haram.
Both have a geographic base far from the capital, Abuja: the former in the oil patch, the latter in the northeast. Both are highly diffuse, without a recognized charismatic leadership or formal politburo or even an accepted manifesto. Both reflect their region’s alienation from the federal government and relative underdevelopment compared with other parts of the country. Both appear to have links with local political leaders.
Both resort to violence and terror for political purposes. The operatives of both seem to be small in number, but are able to draw on the support or acquiescence of a larger proportion of the local population. Both also have criminal elements, with MEND profiting from kidnapping and extortion and Boko Haram from bank robberies.
But key differences will likely mean that the Jonathan government cannot subdue Boko Haram as the Yar’Adua government did MEND.
MEND has always been about money. It wants a larger percentage of the oil-and-gas profits to stay in the Delta region. The criminal dimension of its activities is also important. Accordingly, the government was able to buy the group’s various warlords when the price was right.
But the “amnesty” did not address the popular grievances of a very underdeveloped region, and the co-opted warlords are slowly being replaced by successors not shy about threatening to resume violent activities.
Boko Haram is more focused on political power. This reflects concerns by the Northern elite that Jonathan’s decision to end an informal agreement to alternate presidential power between the Muslim North and Christian South before the 2011 presidential elections will exclude the North from any possibility of future control of the state.
Further, there is a radical Islamic dimension to Boko Haram’s fight, focused on “justice” for the common people vis-à-vis the resource-rich, corrupt state. Some of the group’s operatives have adopted a violent stance against the “evil” federal government. Its attacks against police stations are far bloodier than those MEND ever committed in the Delta.
Initially, Boko Haram was an indigenous movement, with no significant links to other international terrorist groups. And so far it has not targeted Western facilities, scarce in any case in its area of operations. But that focus may change in the future, particularly if Western governments come to be seen as supporters of the Jonathan administration. Boko Haram may even try to reach out to other terrorist groups for tactical assistance.
If the Jonathan government persists in dealing with Boko Haram as a security issue without acknowledging and addressing the political dimension to the insurrection, it is likely that the conflict will intensify. The impotence of the police, military and security services so far indicates that the Abuja government does not have the ability or resources to destroy Boko Haram.
Although the Jonathan government is looking for help from the international community, there is little evidence that additional security resources can turn the tide.
Money will not solve the Boko Haram problem, and a political settlement would require a restructuring of Nigerian politics that would be difficult for any presidential administration to achieve.
Some political and civil society leaders are calling for a “sovereign national conference” that would review the fundamental political and economic issues at stake and draw up a new constitution. While this type of radical course has been unacceptable to those who run the central government, in the end they may have no choice.
John Campbell is a senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria. He is the author of “Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink.”
Put together by MuhdLawal