Africa's best response to Boko Haram

Five weeks after Boko Haram kidnapped more than 200 girls in Nigeria, the response has been mainly a military one. Yet history shows such radical groups thrive in the poorest places. With its rising prosperity, Africa must learn to spread its new wealth around.

Aliko Dangote, Africa's richest man and head of the Dangote Group in Nigeria, says the best response to the terror of Boko Haram is to create jobs in areas of Africa where it operates. He plans to create 180,000 jobs in Nigeria's north.

Most of Africa is at peace these days and prospering in unexpected ways. Two-thirds of its 600 million people own mobile phones. Economic growth is outpacing the rest of the world. Foreign investment has hit a record high. Yet when Boko Haram kidnapped more than 200 girls in Nigeria last month, the shock to the world’s conscience only reinforced a perception of Africa as a continent held back by perpetual conflict.

As with a few other recent conflicts in Africa, such as in Mali and the Central African Republic, the main response, in this case to Boko Haram, has been to strike back, meeting violence with violence. On Saturday, Nigeria and four of its neighbors in West Africa declared war on the Islamic group. French, British, and American agents are providing intelligence to Nigeria, which plans to deploy 20,000 troops against Boko Haram.

Only a few lone voices are calling for another kind of rapid deployment – economic development – in a region of Africa marked by acute poverty and a rising clash between Islam and Christianity. One of them is the richest man in Africa, Aliko Dangote, a Muslim from north Nigeria. He says the best way to counter Boko Haram and other jihadists is through job creation, especially in areas of Nigeria where 80 percent of young men are unemployed.

Mr. Dangote has launched a $10 million “Safe School Initiative” for northeast Nigeria and now plans to create 180,000 jobs, mainly through multimillion-dollar investments in agriculture. Empowering young people to thrive is “the best recipe against terror,” he says.

Africa has the world’s youngest population, which is both a source of instability but also an attraction for global investors seeking low-wage workers. By the end of this century, Africa’s population is expected to be larger than that of China, India, and the whole of Asia combined. This helps explain why financial flows into the continent have risen fourfold since 2000, reaching a record $200 billion last year, according to an African Development Bank report released Monday.

Fewer African countries now rely on foreign aid. And last year several nations raised $10 billion by selling bonds on the international financial market, up from $1 billion a decade ago. This is a sign of improved governance and less corruption.  “If the current pace of growth is sustained, foreign direct investment and portfolio investment could soon constitute Africa’s main source of financial flows,” the report said.

Economic growth in Africa now exceeds that in Latin America and is close to that of Southeast Asia. Yet nearly half of Africans still live in poverty, especially in the Sahal region that runs through northeast Nigeria. While the Nigerian economy is Africa’s largest and enjoys growth of more than 7 percent, it has failed to bring prosperity to its largely Muslim north. This has left a breeding ground for radical groups like Boko Haram.

Nigeria must now rapidly make up for this neglect by deploying economic resources to its poorest region. Its most successful domestic investor, Dangote, has put money into this prospect. The government of President Goodluck Jonathan must follow. Sending more troops is not the best answer.

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