How to loosen Boko Haram’s hold on Nigeria

Boko Haram’s depredations, while horrific, are symptomatic of longer-term problems. With US support, Nigeria must curb political corruption to improve security, ensure religious freedom, and begin the process of reconciliation among its people.

Sunday Alamba/AP
Women attend a demonstration in Lagos, Nigeria, May 5 calling on the government to rescue school girls kidnapped from a government secondary school in Chibok.

While this year marks the 100th anniversary of Nigeria’s nationhood, many Nigerians find themselves more alarmed and sorrowful than celebratory. Since the new year, the terrorist group Boko Haram has killed hundreds in its continuing campaign to destabilize Nigeria, deepen the Muslim/Christian divide, and create a state ruled by strict sharia (Islamic law). The recent mass kidnapping of at least 200 schoolgirls – as well as the gruesome bombing at a busy bus stop in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital – graphically underscores Boko Haram’s continued threat to the nation’s future.

Much is at stake in Nigeria, from the right of religious freedom to the security of a pivotal oil-exporting country and its neighbors. The United States – as a global leader in democratic freedom and security – must do more to encourage Nigeria’s government to take comprehensive action to ensure the safety of its citizens and address its own systemic failures while there is still time.

A symptom of bigger issues

In August 2013, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom released a report documenting Boko Haram’s role as Nigeria’s prime perpetrator of religion-related violence. But the bloodiest four months of their campaign began in January 2014. In March, we visited Africa’s most populous country on USCIRF’s behalf. 

What we found is that Boko Haram’s depredations, while horrific, are symptomatic of longer-term problems. They are only the latest manifestation of Nigeria’s religion-based bloodshed in which 16,000 Nigerians have lost their lives since the turn of the century.

From Boko Haram to political demagogues, malignant forces have exploited three fundamental facts about Nigeria.

Religion exploited

First, for most Nigerians, religion matters greatly. According to a 2006 Pew survey, 76 percent of Christians and 91 percent of Muslims said that religion “is more important to them than their identity as Africans, Nigerians, or members of an ethnic group.” This importance of religious identity has the potential to encourage peaceful values and societal progress for Nigerians, but it has too often been exploited as a tool of division and violence. 

Political corruption feeds violence

Second, Nigeria’s political culture includes what amounts to a winner-takes-all competition for economic spoils. Since politics often is organized along religious lines, opportunists perceive a path to electoral victory through hurling incendiary invective across the nation’s sectarian divide, unleashing violence during election years. If the past is allowed to repeat, presidential and gubernatorial elections in 2015 could witness even more bloodshed.

Third, Nigeria’s longtime culture of corruption erodes good governance and weakens the resolve to uphold rule of law by bringing perpetrators to justice. This failure has created a climate of impunity that encourages the violent to commit more bloodshed to advance their aims.

Such violence, including the Boko Haram attacks, not only violates the freedom to practice one’s religion, but threatens to unravel the nation and spill over into neighboring states. Not just for humanitarian reasons, but for security purposes, national and regional, Nigeria’s status quo must change.

Why – and how – the US must help

The US should continue to assist Nigeria in its fight against Boko Haram, helping it to increase security to protect Christians and Muslims alike. And Nigeria must be willing and able to leverage US military and other support effectively. Washington must also assist the efforts of Nigeria’s weak police and judiciary. If the US government can press Abuja to hold perpetrators of religious violence accountable, it can help end the culture of impunity that fuels instability and prevents too many Nigerians from practicing their religion in peace and security. 

The US government also should speak out against Nigerian politicians’ misuse of religion and identity politics in the lead-up to next year’s elections. In addition, Washington can help Nigeria address sectarian strife by continuing to support Nigerian civil society groups working for Muslim/Christian reconciliation and conflict prevention 

Hope for religious reconciliation

While in Kaduna, a divided Muslim/Christian city, we met with one such group – the Interfaith Mediation Center, cofounded by James Wuye, an Assemblies of God pastor, and Imam Mohammad Ashafa. As a commentary that appeared in these pages in November 2013 discussed, Pastor Wuye and Imam Ashafa were once enemies on opposite sides. They each chose forgiveness after Wuye lost his right arm and Ashafa lost two cousins and a mentor during an outbreak of Muslim/Christian violence. In 1995, they started the center to promote interfaith harmony.

As Nigeria observes its national centennial, its government has a job to do: Enforce rule of law to defeat anarchy and ensure that every Nigerian’s right to religious practice is protected equally under the law. But there is an equally formidable task ahead – reconciliation. For Nigeria’s sake, both efforts must proceed. And both efforts must receive greater support from the US to do so.

Katrina Lantos Swett and M. Zuhdi Jasser serve as vice chairs at the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

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