Boko Haram in Nigeria: The Way Forward

On Monday, in a video showing 130 of the over 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls, Boko Haram announced that it would be willing to let the girls go as part of a trade for Boko Haram militants currently held by Nigeria. Later that day, Nigerian Interior Minister Abba Moro announced that Nigeria declined the offer, stating that the sect is not in any moral position to swap prisoners for the innocent girls.  As I stated in an earlier blog, this kidnapping is only the latest in a long list of attacks against the Nigerian state and its innocent civilians. Boko Haram militants have been active around the country and especially in the northeast for many years.  In fact, this week President Goodluck Jonathan also asked Nigeria’s parliament to extend the state of emergency declared in May of 2013 in the northeastern states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe—the ones most vulnerable and consistently victimized by Boko Haram—by another six months. 

However, the tragedies in Nigeria and the conflict with Boko Haram require more than just responses to terrorist activities.  Though foreign governments are now providing Nigeria with security and surveillance support, the conflict will not end until longer-term and deeply held grievances are addressed.  The strategies adopted by the government should be divided into long-term measures aimed at neutralizing the groups and short- to medium-term measures aimed at containing them and their terrorism.

Long-Term Solutions to Battling Boko Haram: Resolving the Crisis in Nigeria’s Nation Building

Nigeria, the most populous country in sub-Saharan Africa as well as the biggest economy, is facing a severe crisis in its nation-building process. Virtually every part of Nigeria claims it is “marginalized.” Concomitant groups have been calling for the convocation of a “Sovereign National Conference”—a euphemism for a meeting to discuss whether Nigerians want to continue to live together as one country. Something nasty has happened to the effort to create “true Nigerians”—that is, Nigerians who privilege their Nigerian identity over the other identities they bear in the country. Thus, some people still believe that Nigeria is a “mere geographical expression,” a nation only in name and with only very few “true Nigerians.”

The struggle in nation building mixes with poverty, inequality and a lack of development in the country, creating an existential crisis for many Nigerians.  As I stated in my previous blog, for many young people, a way of resolving this sense of alienation is to retreat from the “Nigeria project”—the idea of fashioning a nation out of the disparate nationalities that make up the country—and construct meanings in chosen primordial identities, often with the Nigerian state as the enemy.  I have elsewhere [i] called this phenomenon the “de-Nigerianization process.” In Nigeria, there is a heavy burden of institutionalized memories of hurt, injustice, distrust and even a disguised longing for vengeance by various individuals, ethnic groups, regions and religious groups. In this sense, actions that ordinary Nigerians rightly see as heinous are seen by some as normal, even heroic.

There is a feeling that this “de-Nigerianization process” is accelerating by leaps and bounds.  No individual or political authority enjoys universally perceived legitimacy across the main fault lines and therefore the country is in desperate need of creating more “true Nigerians.” If this trend continues, there is a high risk of a growing number of individuals and groups impairing or even attacking the Nigerian state. Already, some of those entrusted with the nation’s common patrimony steal it blind; some law enforcement officers turn the other way if offered a little inducement; organized labor (including university lecturers) sometimes goes on prolonged strikes on a whim; students may resort to cultism and exam malpractices; and workers often drag their feet, refuse to put in their best and engage in moonlighting. It seems that everyone has one form of grouse or another against the Nigerian state and its institutions.

A long-term solution for containing Boko Haram’s and Ansaru’s terrorism, and for neutralizing them along with other insurgency groups in Nigeria, is to resolve the crisis in the country’s nation-building processes. Terrorism will end when Nigerians come to see themselves as one people and develop that sense of what Benedict Anderson calls “imagined communities.” For Anderson, a nation is a community socially constructed and imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of the group.  For him, a nation “is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.”[ii]

Re-starting the stalled nation-building process is not going to happen overnight. The following measures, however, hold a good promise:

(a) I remain skeptical that the on-going ad hoc National Conference convened by the federal government to recommend solutions to the country’s many challenges will succeed, because of deeply ingrained distrust among Nigerians. However, the conference, if well managed, could be a credible platform for all stakeholders to vent their grievances and frustrations with the Nigeria project. The catharsis will be useful as the country strives for long-term solutions to its nation-building problems. In the same vein, some recommendations from the conference, if implemented, could help mollify some aggrieved groups.

(b) Perhaps one of the long-term solutions to the Boko Harm challenge could come by default. The increasing wave of “Naija optimism” could help blunt the pull of the centrifugal forces. This is a wave of new hope around the country’s economic prospects, typified in the recent inclusion of Nigeria in the MINT (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey) emerging economies and the rebasing of its GDP, making it the largest economy in Africa and the 26th largest in the world.  Because people instinctively want to identify with success, economic growth, especially if it is accompanied with more equitable distribution and people-oriented development could pacify irredentist pressures, as separatist forces may have to contend with the fear of leaving at the time the country is being tapped as among the likely future economic superpowers of the world.  

(c) As Nigeria’s economy develops, the various parts of the country could develop organic economic linkages that will help further the cause of the nation-building process. For instance, if the groundnuts produced in the north are used in the manufacture of peanut butter in the southeast, and the cocoa produced in the west is used for manufacturing chocolate drinks in the north, such economic linkages will help blunt interregional animosities and thus further the cause of national unity.

What Can Nigeria Do in the Meantime? Short- to Medium-Term Solutions to the Violence

In the short- to medium-term, the government should adopt a combination of koboko (Hausa word for whip) and “pieces of the National cake” (a Nigerian phrase for “patronage” or “co-optation into the system”). In Western speak, carrot and stick strategies. Some of the measures the government could take include:

(i) Empowering the state governments in the north to lead the charge and be the faces of the fight against Boko Haram. This could, if anything, address the conspiracy theory in the north that President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration is funding Boko Haram either to make Islam look bad or to depopulate the north ahead of the 2015 elections. It is important to underline that the conspiracy theories have made it more difficult to mobilize collective anger against Boko Haram.

(ii) Creating a Ministry of Northern Affairs—just like the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs—to help address the numerous challenges in the north, including the problems of poverty, unemployment, illiteracy and radical Islam. This establishment would be one way of winning the hearts and minds of the locals and cooling local grievances on which Boko Haram feeds.

(iii) Conducting speedy and fair trials, under Islamic laws, of those found to be Boko Haram activists or funders and letting the law have its full course. Having suspects stand for trial for months or even years creates a backlash, and often has a way of mobilizing sympathy for the suspects. It may also be strategic to try the suspects under Islamic laws since the sect members have openly rejected Western civilization, including its jurisprudence. Whatever punishment is meted to them under Islamic jurisprudence will not be seen as part of Western conspiracy against Islam.

(iv) Instituting a sort of Marshall Plan for the northeast aimed at winning the hearts and minds of the local populace. The plan should aim at providing quality education, building local capacity and providing jobs.

(v) Exploring the option of offering amnesty to the more moderate members of the sects while side-lining the hardliners and finding means to effectively neutralize them.


There is no quick fix to fighting terrorism anywhere in the world as the experiences in Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen and other countries have shown. However, with the above recommended short- to-medium term strategies pursued concurrently with the long-term strategy of resolving the crisis in Nigeria’s nation-building processes, Boko Harm’s and Ansaru’s terrorism can be contained, and the groups eventually neutralized.

Note: This blog reflects the views of the author only and does not reflect the views of the Africa Growth Initiative.  Just this month, the Brookings Africa Growth Initiative is wrapping up a yearlong study on the impact conflict has had on the agricultural sectors in northern Nigeria and Mali. Adibe collaborated with Brookings on this study and specifically put together a long-form exposition on the possible trajectories of Nigeria’s conflict. While the full report moves toward publication, Brookings asked him to publish excerpts for Africa in Focus, 1)

explaining the emergence of Boko Haram

, 2)

discussing possible scenarios on how the conflict could evolve

, and 3) providing policy recommendations for curbing the violence.

[i] Adibe, Jideofor (2012), Nigeria without Nigerians? Boko Haram and the Crisis in Nigeria’s nation-building (London, Adonis & Abbey Publishers). 

[ii]  Anderson, Benedict (1983), Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London and New York, Verso), p. 224.