Boko Haram’s escalation of violent activity across northern Nigeria has been relentless. In the space of a few years, it has transformed from a somewhat troubling group to a serious terrorist organisation: better equipped, better organised and much more violent.
In the past 18 months it has extended its geographic reach and expanded its range of targets. Helped by the fact that this kind of terrorism is a new phenomenon in Nigeria, Boko Haram’s changeability and rapid escalation have given it the advantage and made it the dominant violent organisation in Nigeria’s north.
The problem of terrorism in Nigeria will get worse before it gets better. But options for effective responses to the challenges presented by Boko Haram and similar groups operating in northern Nigeria are not as limited as the scale of the challenge or complexity of the environment might suggest.
An effective response at this stage is difficult because indiscriminate terrorism on this scale is still new to Nigeria. And it is made more difficult because resolving the problem requires coordination and a nuanced approach — and success is dependent upon leadership and political cooperation in Nigeria that bridges region and religion.
As its confidence and capacity have grown, Boko Haram has become less discriminating in its victims. Seven people died in the recent bombings in Abuja and Kaduna, and more lives were lost in subsequent attacks on a Kano university campus church and on a police station in eastern Nigeria.
While it is too reductive to explain Boko Haram’s emergence through socio-economic factors alone, it is no coincidence that it emerged from Nigeria’s most impoverished region, the north-east. Delivery on reforms in the power and agricultural sectors, critical to economic diversification in the country, would change the lives of all Nigerians — but in particular would allow for regeneration of the northern economy.
Boko Haram presents one further challenge to this nascent democracy. There are serious concerns about what it is doing to the cohesion of this often divided nation. But it is also thanks to Nigeria’s scale and diversity that Boko Haram cannot on its own put the country on a negative trajectory.
Nigerians often remark that no condition is permanent, and the political will to implement a careful, nuanced and multifaceted strategy could shift the balance and start to slow and then reverse Boko Haram’s damaging march.
Ms Donnelly is the Africa Programme Manager, Chatham House, London