Rescuing Nigeria from Islamic violence

Recent horrific killings by the radical group Boko Haram call for Nigerian leaders to learn lessons on how to curb armed conflict.

Nigerian women from Borno State, displaced by violence caused by the Islamic militant group Boko Haram, gather at a refugee camp in Adamawa State Feb. 18.

The number of armed conflicts worldwide has dropped 40 percent over the past two decades, caused by a growth in democracy, better economic ties, and campaigns against violence. But in recent weeks, this global trend toward peace has eluded Nigeria, which is Africa’s most populated country and its second largest economy.

Horrific violence, presumably by the Islamist sect Boko Haram, has killed hundreds of civilians since January, including 45 boys at a boarding school on Feb. 24. Over the past year, more than 2,000 people were killed by the well-armed militants in brazen attacks on villages and schools.

Last May, President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in the three northeastern states where the group operates. A German think tank that tracks conflicts has upgraded Nigeria’s violence to a “war.” And in November, the United States officially designated Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist organization.

Like many African countries along the arid Maghreb and Sahel, Nigeria has a mixed population of Christians and Muslims that has seen a rise in the number of Islamic militants, some with loose ties to Al Qaeda. Boko Haram, which translates as “Western education is sinful,” has been around since 2009 and still may have only a few hundred fighters. But in recent months it has used sophisticated arms and transport in attacks on civilians that have embarrassed the Nigerian military.

Its random violence has also created doubts about the government’s ability to protect a country of 170 million people. Nearly 300,000 people have so far been displaced by the fighting.

The US is aiding the militaries in Nigeria and several other African countries facing Islamic terror, in large part to prevent such groups from creating a base to export terror attacks. In assessing such threats last week before a House panel in Washington, Navy Adm. William McRaven, commander of US Special Operations Command, said: “Modern interconnectivity ensures that instability and conflict will not often be constrained by geographic boundaries. There is no such thing as a local problem. Local issues quickly become regional, and regional issues inevitably have global influence.”

Last year, the United Nations Security Council warned that Africa’s Islamic insurgencies, “if left unchecked, could transform the continent into a breeding ground for extremists and a launch pad for larger-scale terrorist attacks around the world.”

To contest Boko Haram, Nigeria’s leaders need to better realize the reasons for the global trend away from armed conflict. They must improve the country’s weak democracy, curb the corruption that erodes its abundant oil wealth, and create jobs for young people. Such steps are the best response to Boko Haram’s apparent hope to create an Islamic theocracy in the north.

Fortunately, Nigeria has had an active dialogue among Christians and Muslims that helps suppress hate between the two religious groups. And few Nigerian Muslims believe in Boko Haram’s radical views, a fact made clear by the group’s killing of both Muslims and Christians.

“Our state and our entire country are currently faced with an unprecedented level of insecurity and threat to the sanctity of human life,” said Mukhtar Ramalan Yero, governor of Nigeria’s Kaduna State, last November. “But we have also seen great examples of courage and faith in confronting these threats.”

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