Nigeria under siege

Africa's most populous country struggles against a broken political system and a growing insurgency, writes Nigerian journalist HAMZA IDRIS

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Boko Haram, a ghost-like jihadist insurgency in northeastern Nigeria, has killed more than 3,500 people over the past few years. Its fighters materialize, strike, then melt back into the population without a trace.

Two weeks ago, a battle between Boko Haram and the Nigerian military laid waste to Baga, a prosperous fishing town on Lake Chad in the far northeast. More than 180 people were killed and some 2,200 homes and businesses were destroyed, mostly as a result of the army's scorched-earth tactics.

It is tragic metaphor for the problems that besiege Africa's most populous country, where poverty, corruption, inept leadership, tribal animosities and a rising tide of jihadism reinforce one another and threaten to break apart the nation. This destructive cycle in Nigeria also fuels a growing regional jihadist movement that sends weapons and warriors across porous borders. The West considers it dangerous enough to warrant military intervention in Mali and the establishment of a U.S. Africa Command.

Nigeria is oil and resource rich, yet it wallows in poverty and violence. In 2009, the U.S. Agency for International Development released a damning report that said 138.6 million Nigerians, more than 90 percent of the country's population, live on less than $2 per day. Well over 70 percent live in absolute poverty. Worst off are those who live in the northern fringes, where Boko Haram is gaining ground and imposing sharia law in the territory it controls.

Nigeria pumps over 2 million barrels of oil per day -- more than Venezuela -- but corruption spreads the wealth among a privileged elite while millions go hungry. Little of the money finds its way into productive investment, education, housing or infrastructure, such as roads or electrical service.

What investment there is goes largely to the south, where most of the Christians live and where people are more educated and prosperous. The north is predominantly Muslim, poorer and made up of different tribes and language groups than the South. So north-south tension, and sometimes violence, has become a fact of life in Nigeria.

President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the oil-rich Niger Delta in the south, wobbles when it comes to tackling the Boko Haram insurgency in the North. The military strikes savagely as it did in Baga, but ineffectually. Mr. Jonathan has said he never would offer amnesty to Boko Haram fighters but recently appointed a high-powered committee to explore amnesty -- which has been roundly rejected in any case by the leader of Boko Haram.

The politics of the situation is so tangled that some analysts believe Mr. Jonathan's handlers have convinced him that Boko Haram was created by northern political elites to steal power from him and extract wealth from the south.

But the Boko Haram uprising predates the Jonathan administration. And two years before, the previous president, Umaru Yar'adua, a Muslim from the North, ordered a major military crackdown on Islamist fighters that claimed the lives of more than 1,000 insurgents, civilians and security forces.

Yar'adua also had granted amnesty to the militants in the southern Niger Delta who had been destroying oil installations and kidnapping oil workers. This, along with distributing oil wealth more broadly, brought relative peace to the region.

In the north, many people similarly advocated amnesty for Boko Haram, believing that the military's pattern of tit-for-tat violence would never work. But with Boko Haram's rejection of amnesty and the government's wavering policies, hardly anyone thinks the situation is going to get better anytime soon.

Dozens of people are killed in the North every day. An incident like the Boston Marathon bombing, killing three and injuring more than 180, would merit page 10 coverage in the national newspapers. Meanwhile, Boko Haram keeps claiming more territory, chasing away government officials and burning symbols of authority like council secretariats, schools and places of worship. Boko Haram propagandists can even hold public lectures.

It is not as if the Nigerian military is outmatched. It claims a huge chunk of the national budget -- more than one-fifth. And it got a substantial increase this year, with no appreciable effect on the security situation.

Nigeria could be a great country. It has a lot of oil and rich soil. What it needs most is top-to-bottom political reform to curtail corruption, to encourage efficient management and to marshal the resources of its land and people into productive pursuits.

The West has a lot at stake in Nigeria, too, but it can help only at the margins -- with investment, aid and advice. It is we Nigerians who must demand better.


Hamza Idris is northeastern Nigeria bureau chief for Media Trust Limited, which publishes a number of newspapers and Kilamanjaro, a pan-African magazine. He is visiting the Post-Gazette on a fellowship from the International Center for Journalists.


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