From the Editor’s Keyboard

Boko Haram – Is Nigeria sleepwalking into a nightmare scenario?

16 June 2014 at 21:35 | 1426 views

By J Boima Rogers, Guest Writer, Oxford, England.


The recent actions by Boko Haram are a cause for concern in Nigeria, throughout Africa and the world because of the importance of this country. The group has been growing in strength, rampant in Borno state, very active in other northern states and striking even further south, in Jos and Abuja, the federal capital.

It is impossible to understand how any religion can sanction the kidnapping of innocent school girls and the destruction and mayhem perpetrated in the name of Allah. Nigeria, the African giant plays a pivotal role in the region and beyond. The solution to the problem must be resolved by Nigerians but with active support from its neighbours and world powers. The problem calls into question the current Nigerian leadership and the capacity of the army. There are some fundamental long term issues which undoubtedly give rise to groups like Boko Haram. If the Boko Haram problem is not resolved by the current administration, hopefully the elections in 2015 will give Nigerians an opportunity to elect a leader who will deal with it more effectively. The nightmare scenario must not be allowed to play out, not by Nigerians, the continent and world.

The pivotal role of Nigeria in Africa

Nigeria is truly the giant of Africa, with the largest economy on the continent, accounting for almost a fifth of Africa’s population and sharing borders with four countries. The country has significant trade with those countries and many others. Nigeria’s traders are active throughout the continent and the country has a large diaspora in most African countries and throughout the world. It is the largest producer of oil on the continent. The instability that Boko Haram is causing in the country is therefore having reverberations throughout Africa and beyond.

A Nigerian solution

The Boko haram problem must be resolved by Nigerians, obviously with the support of its neighbours and world powers. The record of the current administration has not been good. The Boko Haram problem has been simmering for years and it is only the recent kidnapping of the school girls that has forced President Jonathan to make it a top priority, no doubt as a result of the campaign by relatives and the international outcry. The army has not shown that it is up to the job and even as I write this paper President Jonathan has not yet visited Borno state since the girls were kidnapped there. He has recently visited Kano, another northern state on party business but could not make a detour to Borno state in the north-east. He has even found time to fly all the way to France to talk about the problem. In avoiding a visit to Borno President Jonathan is not only showing he is afraid to go there, he is also failing to empathise and build a bond with the people in the state, crucial factors if he is to win the war against Boko Haram. In making the trip to France he is abrogating the country’s role as the regional power, instead taking the position of a client state.

The Boko Haram issue is not an isolated incident and the root cause can be found in the failure of the state. Underdevelopment with high levels of unemployment, rampant corruption, 144th out of 175 states in Transparency International ranking, and very high levels of income inequality are partly to blame. These underlying issues are directly and indirectly what gives rise to a group like Boko Haram and swell its ranks. While its stated objective is to rid the country of western influence and education, these underlying issues are largely the reason why it has been able to recruit followers from the ranks of unemployed men. They also make it very difficult for the government to get the support of people in the region, something that is crucial to defeat the group.

Democracy may be a blessing but perversely, it may be part of the problem in Nigeria because the cost of governance has been just too high, soaking up most of the government’s revenue with little left for development and the infrastructure and exacerbating income inequality. The cost of governance includes high salaries and allowances for local, state and federal politicians and civil servants. When Nigeria became independent there were three regions and local governments under them. Now there are 36 states with costly political and bureaucratic apparatus. The country has gone even beyond the American model, with each state having three senators compared to two for each American state.

If as is likely, the Boko Harem problem continues for the rest of 2014, in the 2015 presidential election it will no doubt play a significant part and hopefully the country will elect a leader with the vision, leadership and management skills to deal with the problem and the underlying issues that give rise to such groups. The indications are not very good. While the country has had a democratic system in the last fifteen years, the same party has been in power all those years, partly because it has been able to mobilise huge sums of money, no doubt making use of state funds, in an electoral system where patronage is key in winning the electorate over. A review of the situation appears to suggest that we could see a continuation of the process. I attended a talk by one of the key potential candidates who has shown that he has a clean track record, vision and mettle. This potential candidate is also from the north and a Muslim which may give him an edge in dealing with Boko Haram. The problem was this chap was not a salesman, a major handicap in a system where flowery words and wild unsubstantiated promises are the order of the day. Another handicap is because he had not salted billions away when he led the country, he is not likely to have the means to succeed in an electoral process that is very costly. Another potentially strong candidate, who has a sterling record as a state governor is, I have been informed not electable partly because he comes from the wrong region. This relates to the fact that the country has, with some justification, tried to alternate leadership between the regions – Jonathan is from the south like this candidate. This state governor is also unlikely to have the funds necessary because he has not used his office to enrich himself.

The Boko Haram problem will haunt any leader and if President Jonathan can resolve the problem it will be a big plus if he seeks reelection. If he is not a candidate or loses the election whoever takes over from him needs to address the problem because Nigeria cannot afford to let this cancer keep spreading. The solution may include strong and effective military action, isolation of the leadership and core group and possibly some form of negotiation. The country would also need to address the underlying issues that give rise to groups like Boko Haram and swell its ranks. At the moment the main business in Nigeria is government. The only industry is the oil sector which has devastated other sectors such as agriculture. The country has failed to develop other sectors, notably, industrial production even though it has natural resources and the market (population and income from oil) to do so. This is not sustainable.

The nightmare scenario must not be allowed to play out

The nightmare scenario is Nigeria to continue to have the Boko Haram problem, in addition to other disaffected groups and loss of significant market for the sole commodity, as happened when the US recently stopped importing oil from Nigeria, a collapse in oil prices or the oil wells running dry. This scenario is an earthquake that Nigeria is sleep walking into. Such a nightmare scenario will have catastrophic effect on the country, region and the world. Africa and the world cannot allow this nightmare scenario to play out because Nigeria is just too big and important to fail. Nigeria is not Somalia but the African giant where almost one in five Africans live with strong tentacles and links in the continent and the world where such a scenario will have strong reverberations. The country must embark on a sustainable long term development strategy. It must build and maintain its physical, educational, governance and regional infrastructure and diversify from a situation where government is the main business and crude oil is its sole commodity, into a sustainable economic model to create jobs and opportunity for all its citizens. It has ample resources to make this happen and in the long run this is the main antidote to Boko Haram and similar groups.