How to respond to Boko Haram’s evolving threat to Nigeria

Guest blogger G. Pascal Zachary argues that Nigeria must treat the Islamist militant group Boko Haram as a homegrown threat, fueled by decades of unaddressed regional grievances.

Salisu Rabiu/AP
Weapons seized from the Boko Haram, a Nigerian terrorist group, last month.

•  A version of this post appeared on the blog "Africa Works." The views expressed are the author's own.

J. Peter Pham released a timely paper this week on Boko Haram, tracing the history of the insurgent Nigerian movement in useful detail. Pham, who directs an Africa studies program at the Atlantic Council, concludes that the Nigerian government should “deal forthrightly with the threat” of violent Islamic extremism.

Pham is right. At the very least, Nigeria should, and the US government should help. The question is how. What objectives should the Nigerian government have in addressing Boko Haram? Pham offers few clues on specific policy options open to a Nigerian government that, to put it politely, has badly handled the Islamicist threat over the past decade. Pham provides a few disturbing reasons why. First, elements in the Nigerian state may be covertly helping Boko Haram, which of course would make reducing acts of terror sponsored and carried out by the group more difficult. And Pham cites the emergence of critical leaders of Boko Haram who possess non-Nigerian roots. He singles out Chadian-born Mamman Nur, who is believed to have trained with al-Shabab in Somalia and, according to Pham, returned to Nigeria in 2011 — in time to direct a deadly attack on a United Nations building in Abuja.

While Pham’s account is important, policymakers still lack a clearer sense of how Boko Haram fits into the longstanding regional differences in Nigeria, especially between the Muslim North and the largely Christian “South South,” the Delta region, home to Goodluck Jonathan’s Ijo people and the larger Igbo grouping that my wife, Chizo, claims allegiance to. Boko Haram as a movement may ultimately be shown to be a foreign import, a formation alien to the political culture of Nigeria. Such is the suggestion by Pham and others, motivated in part by the need to find a justification for “internationalizing” the problem (i.e., calling on the U.S., the African Union and others to help reduce and, ultimately, end terrorism in Nigeria).

Nigeria does need outside help in responding to Boko Haram. But we can support security aid to Nigeria without working overtime to create imagined enemies of the Nigerian state. But what is equally possible, and probably more disturbing than anything Pham identifies, is that Boko Haram may represent a destructive and dysfunctional, but authentic, movement of resistance, homegrown in Nigeria, and fueled by 50 years of festering, simmering and ultimately unaddressed regional differences, which are made more complicated because these regional differences often masquerade as religious ones.

G. Pascal Zachary is a professor of practice at Arizona State University, in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism who blogs at Africa Works

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