Despite its oil wealth, Nigeria is struggling with three home-grown conflicts and, lately, a recession. Now this African giant is discovering another problem: a severe food shortage in its remote northeast affecting more than 3 million people, caused by turmoil from the Muslim extremist group Boko Haram. The United Nations, too, recently woke up to this need in Nigeria, with several wealthy countries pledging emergency aid last month.
Many of today’s humanitarian crises are caused by jihadist-related insurgencies, but Nigeria’s may be the most acute. At least 65,000 are living in famine-like conditions, according to UN officials. While the Nigerian military has had some success since 2015 in rolling back Boko Haram, many towns in the northeast remain isolated. And the militant group still commands a few thousand fighters, making it difficult for aid workers to know the exact scope of the need or to reach all villages.
An estimated 17,000 people have been killed in Nigeria since the Boko Haram rebellion broke out in 2009. Like the Islamic State in the Middle East, the group seeks a Muslim caliphate in West Africa. That aim has been much diminished by the military but, in the meantime, Nigeria must now deal with a potential famine.
The country already faces problems from widespread corruption to falling oil revenue. Its president, Muhammadu Buhari, promised change and a campaign against graft as he took office last year. He is widely seen as incorruptible and disciplined. Last month, he promised to drive hunger out of Nigeria but also recognized that his own efforts may not be enough to deal with all the woes. He launched an information campaign to remind citizens that much of the change in society will come from personal reform in values and habits.
“Before you ask ‘where is the change they promised us?’, you must first ask, ‘how far have I changed my ways?’ ” the president said. He ask people to behave better, such as in driving through traffic intersections, engaging with neighbors, and in handling relationships at work. He used a Twitter hashtag – #changebeginswithus – to name the campaign.
While the president can certainly do more as the national leader to solve big problems like the food crisis, his “change” campaign can build on a reform effort in the northeast that has helped young people resist the allure of Boko Haram. In a survey earlier this year, the global aid group Mercy Corps interviewed 26 young Muslims who had resisted Boko Haram’s recruitment efforts about the positive influences for their decision. A common answer was that local religious leaders were able to persuade them of Boko Haram’s false doctrine and corrupt ways. That finding, Mercy Corps stated, provides evidence of the role that religious leaders can play as peacebuilders.
As Nigeria and the world aid community rush to aid the hungry in the northeast, the country can use this crisis to improve its confidence in solving national problems. The president’s change-begins-with-us campaign is only a reminder of where that confidence lies.