boko haram—nigeria’s homegrown terrorist group—launched its deadliest attack last friday in kano, the country’s second largest city after lagos. they certainly hit the government at a point of extreme weakness, as president goodluck jonathan and his economic team are rebuilding their credibility after scaling back ambitions plans on repealing costly fuel subsidies (which cost the government $7.5 billion/year).
the jonathan administration has and will continue struggling to come up with strategies to curb the boko haram threat. although it is clear that boko haram gets training from AQIM (it has been rumored that algerian AQIM members have trained nigerians in bomb making), the group’s small numbers (greater than 200 but less than 1,000) and the growing sophistication of its attacks make it hard for security forces to pursue effective counterterrorism. better cooperation with its neighbors–niger and chad specifically–would be a positive step in sharing intelligence (many rank and file members aren’t actually nigerian), as policy responses such as closing borders of nigerian states under states of emergency have privately incensed nigeria’s neighbors who are generally poorer and rely on cross-border migration to find jobs.
further, despite boko haram’s ties with foreign jihadis, it is important to remember that the group’s grievances are aimed at the nigerian government. although boko haram draws from contemporary salafist ideology, the group’s concerns are protests against legacies of colonial rule. historically, when britain colonized nigeria, they used muslim elites from the north to act as political and economic middlemen, as they sought to legitimize and consolidate their rule across what would become modern-day nigeria. the gradual loss of power in the post-colonial era—seen in the decline of military rule—and the advent of democracy, gave rise to the ruling people’s democratic party (pdp)’s idea of “zoning,” or the idea that the party’s presidential nominee would rotate between a christian southerner and a muslim northerner. many northerners saw jonathan’s candidacy in 2011 as violating this unwritten rule.
amidst this backdrop, a number of intelligence officials—most of whom are northerners (aliyu gusau for example) and who unsuccessfully sought the pdp nomination in january 2011—see the escalating boko haram crisis as a strategy of weakening the president jonathan and his administration. although jonathan has accused some in his government of collaborating with boko haram (mostly true), the collusion among some in the pdp and boko haram is a political strategy. with each boko haram attack, these pdp officials look to de-legitimize jonathan as much as possible without tarnishing the reputation of the pdp, or leading the nation in to civil war. there has been much debate over the “internationalization of boko haram,” but given collective historical grievances and how the group operates today, it seems as if boko haram will limit its attacks to nigeria. reaching outside of its borders would discredit the party, and ultimately threaten the small cabal of pdp northerners working in security jockeying for key leadership positions in the party’s 2015 presidential bid.
as they have previously done following previous attacks, many in the security establishment will in the short-term argue that nigeria should devote more resources to fighting boko haram. given the partial repeal of fuel subsidies, which represented approximately 25% of nigeria’s budget, raiding the security sector instead of the downstream energy sector is a new, sure-fire way to raid the state’s resources. much has been said about how fuel subsidies are the main point of fiscal slippage in nigeria, but defense and intelligence spending, which also account for a quarter of state spending, is an area where nigeria could slip as much—or even more—than previously seen with fuel subsidies.
in the medium- and long-run, i still remain excited about the potential of nigeria for investors. the country debuted a $500 million dollar eurobond that was heavily oversubscribed in 2011, pointing to investor appetite in the country. nigeria’s strong growth prospects are due to trends in its expanding middle class. despite the growing reach of boko haram, their threats have yet to alter the patterns of demographic and social change, a story which is currently playing out in the south and middle-belts. until boko haram launches a series of high-profile, well-coordinated attacks like the one seen on sunday, i remain a nigeria bull.