The author, who travels widely in Nigeria and interacts with political, business and civil society leaders of varying views, requested that his name not be used.
Among Nigeria’s political class, the only issue of current interest seems to be the 2015 election. But Nigeria is facing a threat that should be everyone’s chief concern – the growing strength of Boko Haram, which in recent weeks has captured a string of towns across Borno, this country’s second largest state.
Approximately 20 percent of Nigerian territory may now be under insurgent occupation, including Bama, a strategic town commanding the most important approaches from neighboring Chad and Cameroon to the Borno capital, Maiduguri.
From a “back-to-basics” radical fringe religious movement, Boko Haram has rapidly metamorphosed into a well-organized military force. In stark contrast to earlier crude hit-and-run attacks, its fighters are now capturing and holding territory. Advancing at a lightning pace, they have all but decimated the forward presence of the most powerful army in west Africa.
If recent successes continue, Boko Haram could soon encircle Maiduguri, a city of three million people. In skirmish after skirmish in the north-east of the country, Boko Haram has simply walked in and seized towns as the poorly-armed and equipped soldiery fled, not willing to stand and die for a nation whose legitimacy is widely seen as compromised by the rapacious avarice of its elites.
Beyond territorial gains, Boko Haram has exposed frightening vulnerabilities at the heart of the Nigerian state. After decades of meddling with politics, the army finds itself outmatched by an enemy willing to fight and die for its cause. Institutionalized corruption and the greed of the officers has eroded esprit de corps.
Contributing to the crisis is the fact that most of the officers are political appointees, whose promotions are based on ethnicity and loyalty to the powerful, not on their astuteness in military affairs.
In a country where pursuit of power regularly trumps a sense of responsibility to the citizenry, Boko Haram is used as a political football to score cynical personal and partisan goals. Representatives of leading political parties repeatedly try to convince the electorate that Boko Haram is a tool created by their opponents – the other parties – to discredit them.
Sadly, many of the electorate seem to have come to believe this propaganda. Much of Nigeria’s media, itself divided on ethnic lines, is awash with lurid allegations by adventurists and rabble-rousers spouting dark conspiracy theories. Many are choosing to see Boko Haram as a government plot to destroy the mostly Muslim north of the country, while others believe northern politicians are secretly backing the insurgency to discredit the President, a southerner and a Christian.
The upcoming elections will likely be one of the most bitterly contested since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999. Conducting the free and fair elections that the government has pledged will impose additional strain on the capacity of security forces.
Providing election security in most of the nation will likely require a drawing down of troops from the north, thus presenting Boko Haram with a further strategic opening.
The threat needs to be treated with utmost urgency. What is at stake is not just the territorial integrity of the Nigerian state but also its residual legitimacy and its survival as a multi-ethnic, multi religious country.
Further advances in Borno, including even a temporary takeover of Maiduguri, could be accompanied by persecution of the large Christian population there, which could provoke backlash against Muslims by Christians in the south.
Major losses of territory to Boko Haram would continue to undermine the military’s prestige and effectiveness, while further emboldening separatist movements across the country.
As Boko Haram becomes stronger, so does its ideology of fundamentalism and hatred. As more and more youth huddle under the black jihadi flag, disillusioned with the predatory nature of the state and seeking solace in the nihilistic medieval ideology of the insurgents, they repudiate the idea of Nigeria as an inclusive progressive state.
And the danger extends beyond Nigeria, which as the continent’s most populous country and one of its wealthiest and most powerful, long stood as an inspiration for many across Africa. A consolidation by Boko Haram of control over Borno State territory offers a springboard to launch further incursions into areas of Niger, Cameroon and Chad – weak states that would have difficulty surviving the onslaught.
With political leaders largely ignoring the looming threat to focus on their own futures, the world risks the rise of a new arc of instability from Libya through large swaths of west Africa. Such a spread of parochial, violent hatreds would decisively dash hopes of this being an African century.