People stand near burnt structures in the aftermath of heavy fighting between security forces and Islamist militants in Baga, Nigeria, April 21, 2013.
Courtesy Reuters

The militant Islamist group Boko Haram, which killed hundreds, possibly even thousands, in the northern Nigerian town of Baga in January, is often seen as another foe in the war on terrorism. It has called for overthrowing the Nigerian government and declared a caliphate over the areas of Borno State that it controls. While it carries many features of a terrorist group, it is more insightful to consider it—and even crucial in figuring out how to defeat it—in another light: as a product of Nigeria’s poor and unequal governance.

At the time of its founding by an Islamist cleric named Mohammed Yusuf in 2002, Boko Haram—which in the Hausa language is colloquially known as “Western education is a sin”—did not seek to violently overthrow the government but to implement Sharia law in the northeast. The group began to radicalize in 2009, however, after experiencing routine police brutality and harsh government treatment. For instance, the police shot and wounded several members of Boko Haram for simply refusing to comply with a new law requiring motorcycle passengers to wear helmets. Shortly after, the group launched a series of attacks against the police in the town of Bauchi, and security forces responded by killing more than 700 Boko Haram members, as well as innocent bystanders. Later that year, when the police captured Yusuf, they summarily executed him in front of a crowd gathered outside of a police station, an act that has been considered key in driving the group toward its modern, brutal form. Although Boko Haram generally lacks popular support from the north, especially after it became so indiscriminate in its targets, Boko Haram’s rise is a direct result of the poor governance and poverty in the region.

Since 2009, Boko Haram has kidnapped hundreds, killed thousands, and internally displaced over a million people. While the government declared a state of emergency in the region over a year ago, the military, tasked with defeating Boko Haram, has been unable to provide its civilians with basic security. It has, instead, repeatedly committed gross violations of human rights. For example, in 2013, during a clash with Boko Haram in Baga, the army ended up killing residents and starting a fire that consumed more than 2,000 buildings. The extensive corruption that pervades the military severely reduces its effectiveness—soldiers are sometimes forced to go into battle without basic supplies, such as bullets and transport vehicles. Given its $6 billion budget, West Africa’s strongest military has performed pathetically in the field.

There is also growing resentment in the predominantly Muslim north toward the south, which is doing much better on almost every conceivable measure: growth is higher; there is more investment; and public services such as education and health care are, however poor in some places, significantly more robust. Whereas rapidly growing cities like Lagos are booming, and have seen marked improvement in governance over the past decade, in many parts of the north the economy is stagnant and the government nearly nonexistent. Three-fifths of Borno State’s adolescents, where Boko Haram is most active, are illiterate. Like all northern states, less than a tenth of one-year-olds receive all their basic vaccinations. And the violence in the region only exacerbates these economic and social disparities, since investors, public servants, teachers, and doctors all flee the areas where Boko Haram is active.

In order to lessen the north-south divide and maintain a balance of power at the national level, Nigeria has historically alternated between a northern and southern president. This practice had been diligently observed until 2011 when the current president, Goodluck Jonathan, decided to run even though it was the north’s turn. His subsequent victory, and his inadequacy as a ruler, has added to the frustration that pervades the north. Jonathan appeared especially callous after his administration took three weeks to address the April 2014 kidnappings of over 200 girls from Chibok in Borno State and waited months before visiting the affected families.


A victory in February’s election for Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim from the north, would help lessen the feelings of marginalization in the north. But the roughly one million internally displaced—some of the very people who would have voted for Buhari—are effectively disenfranchised. A victory would likely require special efforts to enable refugees who have fled the violence in the north to vote.

Even if Buhari were to win, his victory would only provide a short-term fix. It won’t change the core problem: weak governance, especially in the north. Despite earning over $50 billion from oil exports in recent years, the country is growing poorer. Nigeria’s poverty rate has climbed substantially—from 54 percent in 2004 to 61 percent in 2010—and the provision of public services, or the lack thereof, shows little improvement across most of the country, but especially in the north.

Along with endemic corruption, the national ruling elites are both in denial about the scale of the country’s problems and arrogantly confident that they can handle Boko Haram without outside help. Even if they could, fragmentation among elites makes it hard to unite around any reform program. Despite Nigeria’s desperate need to construct a more inclusive government that prioritizes narrowing the north-south divide—in education, health care, and infrastructure—no major politician would be able to construct a winning coalition to support this goal. Indeed, political parties are used more as vehicles to gain access to the country’s enormous oil wealth than as agents to change the country’s social and economic ills. The government, safely in Ajuba over 500 miles away, continues to ignore the growing chaos in the northeast even though the violence is already spreading to other states within Nigeria, such as Yobe, and neighboring countries like Cameroon. Tragically, the problem may have to get a lot worse before the governing elites decide that they must sacrifice some of their own needs for the sake of the country.

Since Nigeria appears to lack the political will to curb the growing threat of Boko Haram, the international community needs to step in. But those that want to help Nigeria are in a difficult position: How do you help a government that does not feel it needs help?

Although outsiders have limited leverage over Africa’s most populated country, the Obama administration should, at the very least, encourage African leaders in neighboring Chad, Niger, and Cameroon to assemble a humanitarian force to intervene and help stop the advance of Boko Haram. Obama should also urge the new leadership that is elected in February to reform the security and governance sectors in the northeast with outside assistance. Washington could also appoint a special envoy to work with the country and its neighbors on possible solutions to containing Boko Haram and addressing the underdevelopment that affects all states in Nigeria’s northern region. Such an envoy could, among other things, explore whether negotiating with factions within Boko Haram could reduce the group’s potency—there are many who are not committed to the group’s ideological agenda but who joined for either political or pecuniary reasons. But without such help forthcoming, the problem is likely to continue to grow, with increasingly devastating consequences for millions of people.

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  • SETH KAPLAN is a lecturer at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a senior adviser for research at the Institute for Integrated Transitions, and the editor of the Fragile States Forum.
  • More By Seth Kaplan