A host of nations are sending military aid and other assistance to Nigeria for the rescue of more than 200 girls abducted by Boko Haram. To Nigerians, however, the surprise outpouring of compassion only puts a spotlight on their own government’s many failings. To keep Boko Haram and other militant groups from further terrorist acts, many say, Nigeria needs basic reforms. And that starts with putting an end to corruption.
In large part, Boko Haram’s origins lie in a frustration by its late founder, Muslim preacher Mohammed Yusuf, over corruption. He offered a radical version of Islam as a solution for official graft. The group has since been able to recruit hundreds of alienated youth in the poverty-racked Muslim north where corruption is rampant. It can buy sophisticated weapons from corrupt members of the Nigerian military. And it can easily pay for tip-offs from local police about government moves against Boko Haram.
Under President Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria has largely used a military strategy against Boko Haram. Only in March did the government offer a “soft” strategy to counter the root causes of terrorism. One aim of the strategy is rapid economic development of the north in a hearts-and-minds campaign. But similar economic initiatives in the past have largely ended up lining the pockets of officials.
The first task is clean governance. Nigeria already has two major anti-corruption agencies, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offenses Commission. One private activist group, CLEEN Foundation, set up a website last year that allows anyone to report demands for bribery by local police (stopthebribes.net). But far more needs to be done to rid Africa’s largest economy from a culture of impunity toward corruption.
The shock from Boko Haram’s mass kidnapping could bring the political momentum needed for Nigerians to act. From Turkey to Brazil to India, anti-corruption campaigns have sprung up in recent years, triggered by flagrant government failings. An educated middle class, fed up with petty bribery, usually leads the protests. But it is the poor who would benefit most from effective programs from a clean government.
Good governance in Nigeria will help keep poor, young men from joining radical insurgencies. “The current challenges facing our country demonstrate the importance of working together across geopolitical zones, political party lines, and ethnic-religious affinities to defeat our common enemies – poverty and corruption,” said one governor, Muazu Babangida Aliyu, of Niger State last week. He called for Boko Haram to be defeated within three months.
Nigeria’s economy is growing at 7 to 8 percent, but less than a third of its people have faith in their government. With the world spotlight now on Nigeria, its people have an opportunity to dry up the swamp of corruption that allows militants to thrive. Foreign aid will not do that. Only the people can.