Over the weekend, as crowds gathered to watch a village football game, the town of Mubi in Adamawa state Nigeria was rocked by a bomb blast. Witnesses reported around 30 casualties. This attack occurred in one of the three states at the centre of President Goodluck Jonathan's fight against the insurgency group Boko Haram. Questions are being raised about the ability of the Nigerian government to deal with this persistent threat, as it has so far failed to stem the tide of violence.
The pernicious ideology fuelling Boko Haram is one borne out of history as well as present circumstances. Since the Sokoto Caliphate, a former Muslim state, which ruled parts of what is now northern Nigeria, fell under British control in 1903 there has been resistance to western education among Muslims. Many in the region continue to refuse to send their children to government-run schools.
Mohammed Yusuf, a Muslim cleric, formed Boko Haram in 2002, initially with a mission to oppose western forms of education in the northern states of Nigeria. In 2009, they began launching military operations with the stated aim of creating an Islamic state. In recent years the group’s fighters have launched multiple raids on small villages, looting, killing and burning properties to create a climate of fear.
Nigeria is a country with many economic and social problems. There are chronic power shortages, poor public services and badly-run state institutions. Corruption is rife at local, state and national levels, and despite the nation’s great oil wealth, most of the population continues to live in poverty. Boko Haram is part of a long list of problems the Nigerian government has yet to confront.
The geopolitical significance of the Boko Haram threat cannot be understated. Nigeria has the largest economy and is the most populous nation in Africa. It’s the world’s eighth-largest oil exporter, with a GDP of $510 billion. Any destabilisation will affect world international oil markets and financial stability.
Western countries are not standing idly by. The UK and US are sending military advisors and supplies to the country, stopping just short of putting their own soldiers in harm’s way. But the situation on the ground is complex, and a military response alone will not solve the problem.
The UK’s foreign policy approach to Nigeria and the wider region must adapt. In addition to military advice, we should be providing support to surrounding nations, such as Cameroon, to ensure that they are best equipped to prevent the expansion of Boko Haram. Working with international institutions we should aim to suffocate any source of funding or support for the terrorist group.
The Council on Foreign Relations’ recent analysis by Mohammed Aly Sergie stated that many in the west are ignoring the context from which Boko Haram has emerged and emphasised that a purely military response may only act to further radicalise the group. There needs to be a focus on root causes, tackling issues such as socio-economic inequality, religious tension and poor infrastructure, if groups like Boko Haram are not to spring up across the country like weeds.
Nigeria has the potential to be a thriving nation with a thriving economy, a beacon in a region that has been through decades of difficulty. Boko Haram is preventing this vision becoming a reality. It must be stopped.