The United States' Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Johnnie Carson spoke Monday on the political and security challenges confronting Nigeria.
Carson, who spoke at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Washington on "Nigeria, One Year After Elections," urged the Federal Government to consider creating a Ministry of Northern Affairs or a development commission similar to what it did in response to the Niger Delta crisis in order to tackle economic and security challenges in the North. Excerpts:
Nigeria's success is important to us, but we recognized that success cannot be achieved unless Nigeria overcomes the challenges that have frustrated its progress.
Decades of poor governance have seriously degraded the country's health, education, and transportation infrastructure.
Despite hundreds of billions of dollars in oil revenue, Nigeria has virtually no functioning rail system and only half of its population has access to electricity.
The 80 million who have electricity share intermittent access to power equivalent to what we use here in the Washington, DC metro area.
Living standards are the same today as they were in 1970, and nearly 100 million Nigerians live on less than one dollar a day.
The statistics are disturbing, but they are not the whole story. Poverty in northern Nigeria is increasing.
Despite a decade in which the Nigerian economy expanded at a spectacular seven percent per year, the Nigerian National Bureau of Statistics estimates that extreme poverty is 10 percent higher than in 2004. It's even worse in the North. Income inequality is growing.
These trends are worrying for economic, political, and security reasons.
Public opinion polls and news reports suggest that there is a strong sentiment throughout the country, but especially in the North, that government is not on the side of the people; and that their poverty is a result of government neglect, corruption, and abuse.
This is the type of popular narrative that is ripe for an insurgent group to hijack for its own purposes.
As you all know, over the last year Boko Haram has created widespread insecurity across northern Nigeria, increased tensions between various ethnic communities, interrupted development activities, frightened off investors, and generated concerns among Nigeria's northern neighbors.
They have been responsible for near-daily attacks in Borno and Yobe states. And they were behind the January 20 attack in Kano that killed nearly 200 people as well as three major attacks in Abuja, including the bombing of the UN headquarters last August.
To underscore this point, there were two more attacks this weekend. Boko Haram's attacks on churches and mosques are particularly disturbing because they are intended to inflame religious tensions and upset the nation's social cohesion.
Although Boko Haram is reviled throughout Nigeria, and offers no practical solutions to northern problems, a growing minority of certain northern ethnic groups regard them favorably. Boko Haram capitalizes on popular frustrations with the nation's leaders, poor government service delivery, and the dismal living conditions of many northerners.
Boko Haram seeks to humiliate and undermine the government and exploit religious differences in order to create chaos and make Nigeria ungovernable.
Boko Haram has grown stronger and increasingly more sophisticated over the past three years, and eliminating the Boko Haram problem will require a comprehensive and broad based strategy that establishes a comprehensive development plan rather than the imposition of martial law. While more sophisticated and targeted security efforts are necessary to contain Boko Harm's acts of violence and to capture and prosecute its leaders, the government must also win over the population by addressing the social and economic problems that have created the environment in which Boko Haram can effectively thrive. The government must improve its tactics, avoid excessive violence and human rights abuses, make better use of its police and intelligence services, de-emphasize the role of the military and use its courts to prosecute those who are found to be responsible for Boko Haram's kidnappings, killings, and terrorist events.
Nigerian officials should focus on the political environment that makes Boko Haram so dangerous. By demonstrating the benefits a pluralistic society has to offer, the government can deny Boko Haram and other extremists the ability to exploit ethnic and religious differences.
The government should redouble its efforts to resolve ongoing disputes in Jos and other high-violence flashpoints. By becoming more responsive to the people, the government can put distance between itself and the accusations that it is blind to the needs of northern Nigerians.
Numerous northern civil society organizations have come out against Boko Haram - at great personal risk - and they could multiply serious government efforts to address longstanding northern grievances. I want to stress that religion is not driving extremist violence either in Jos or northern Nigeria.
While some seek to inflame Muslim-Christian tensions, Nigeria's ethnic and religious diversity, like in our own country, is a source of strength, not weakness, and there are many examples of communities working across religious lines to protect one another.
Containing and eliminating Boko Haram today will be much more difficult than it was four years ago, when it was under the leadership of its now deceased leader, Muhammed Yusuf, who was killed in police custody.
Today, Boko Haram is not a monolithic, homogenous organization controlled by a single charismatic figure. Boko Haram is several organizations, a larger organization focused primarily on discrediting the Nigerian government, and a smaller more dangerous group, increasingly sophisticated and increasingly lethal.
This group has developed links with AQIM and has a broader, anti-Western jihadist agenda.
This group is probably responsible for the kidnapping of westerners and for the attacks on the UN building in Abuja. Complicating the picture further is the tendency of some officials to blame Boko Haram for all bank robberies and local vendettas occurring in the North when these should be ascribed to common criminals and political thugs.
There are also some who say that Boko Haram is comprised mostly of non-Nigerian foreigners, and that the group is being funded by a handful of resentful politicians nursing their wounds from the last election. This would be deeply unfortunate if true, but I have not seen any evidence to support either of these theories.
To fix the Boko Haram problem, the government will have to develop a new social compact with its northern citizens. It will have to develop an economic recovery strategy that complements its security strategy.
It will have to draw on the support of northern governors, traditional Hausa and Fulani leaders and local officials and organizations. The Nigerian government should consider creating a Ministry of Northern Affairs or a development commission similar to what it did in response to the Niger Delta crisis.
Northern populations are currently trapped between violent extremists on one hand and heavy-handed government responses on the other. They need to know that their President is going to extraordinary lengths to fix their problems.
Achieving this will not be easy. Although the problems are not the same, it has taken the central government in Abuja nearly a decade to bring the problems in the Niger Delta under some semblance of control. Resolving the problems in northern Nigeria will require the government to act more swiftly and to make a strategic course correction.
Despite the challenges that Nigeria faces with Boko Haram and other issues, Nigeria is simply too important to be defined by its problems.
Nigeria must be defined by its promise and its enormous potential, as well as the resourcefulness of its people. Although some political observers have accused the government of getting off to a shaky start after the elections, that is not a judgment shared by all - especially when you look at key players in the President Goodluck Jonathan's cabinet.
There is also a bright side to be found in a number of statehouses across Nigeria, where governors are responsible for delivering most public services.
A handful of governors embraced the challenges of their jobs and have made a real difference. The governors in Lagos State, Edo State, and Kano State have demonstrated what strong, honest and responsible leadership at the state level can accomplish. They deserve our support.
There is no doubt that Nigeria's challenges are serious, but we should not underestimate the skill and ability of the Nigerian people and leaders to address them.
Copyright © 2012 Daily Trust. All rights reserved. Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media (allAfrica.com). To contact the copyright holder directly for corrections — or for permission to republish or make other authorized use of this material, click here.