To Battle Nigeria's Boko Haram, Put Down Your Guns

How to Undermine the Growing Islamist Threat

On August 26, a suicide bomber drove an explosive-laden Honda into the United Nations headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria, killing 23 people and injuring 81 more. Boko Haram, a shadowy radical Islamic movement that has been waging daily attacks in the north of the country, claimed responsibility. Some have argued that the sophisticated tactics are evidence of Boko Haram establishing links with international terrorist networks, most likely al Qaeda in the Maghreb or al Shabab in Somalia. Even before this attack, the United States, Britain, and Israel had publicly supported providing counterterrorism assistance to the Nigerian government. Now, momentum for such a solution is growing.

But such an approach could do more harm than good -- for Nigeria but also for Washington, which cannot afford to alienate Africa's largest Muslim population. Since his election to the Nigerian presidency in April 2011, Goodluck Jonathan has undertaken an exclusively security-driven strategy for dealing with Boko Haram, stationing large numbers of military and police in the north, especially in Maiduguri, a city on the edge of the Sahara near the border with Chad, and the states of Bauchi and Borno. Although the military and police are made up of various ethnic, religious, and regional groups, few are native to the areas in which they serve and can be hostile to the local populations. For example, following a bombing in Maiduguri, Amnesty International reported that the Nigerian military "responded by shooting and killing a number of people, apparently at random, before burning down the market." That significant numbers of people have fled the area adds credibility to such accusations, as does the fact that some local leaders are calling for a reduction of the military and police presence in their communities.

Instead of associating itself with Abuja's heavy-handed military response, the Obama administration should urge Jonathan to address what are essentially political problems: poverty and the corruption-driven alienation felt by the population of northern Nigeria, factors that contribute to Boko Haram's popular support.

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