For the majority of its history as a free and independent nation, Nigeria has been a military state. Except for a brief flirtation with democracy in the early 80s, Nigerians spent the final third of the 20th century under the rule of a series of corrupt military dictators who were constantly deposing one another in slews of coups and counter-coups, with the one constant being the refusal of any regime to share the spoils of Nigeria’s vast oil reserves with the general population. In 1999, military rule formally ended in Nigeria, when Olusegun Obasanjo—a man who had served as the country’s military ruler in the late 70s—was elected in a rather dubious election. but it would still be another 8 years until the election of  Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, the country’s first civilian President in over 40 years. Yar’Adua would only serve as Nigeria’s president for about two an a half years as he was to fall ill and die in the spring of 2010, transferring power to the nation’s current President, Goodluck Jonathan.

Unlike his predecessor Yar’Adua, who was a Muslim from the Shariah law practicing north of the country, Goodluck Jonathan is a Christian who was born and raised in the slightly more secular environs of the south. More so than either of his pseudo-democratically elected predecessors, Jonathan has had ample motivation to protect his hold on the presidency by, in an ironic twist of fate, reducing the size and capacity of the nation’s military, which has earned international attention in recent weeks for its incompetence. In a leaked letter to President Jonathan written shortly before Boko Haram’s massacre in Baga, a military officer stationed in the northeast complained about how corruption, poor morale and an absence of appropriate resources were dooming the Nigerian army to failure. In the letter, the officer tells Jonathan that, “if all the battalions are well-equipped as required; it will not take the Army more than two weeks to flush out the BH (Boko Haram)”, but that under the current circumstances, his soldiers cannot be expected to succeed. “If all issues raised in this letter are not urgently address [sic]” the officer writes to the President, “the Nigerian Army will soon be history and by implication there will be no country called Nigeria.”


A  Nigerian woman sits in the shadow of a massive campaign poster for President Goodluck Jonathan in Lagos. (Reuters)

Under most circumstances, it would be easy to dismiss the warnings in this letter as the overblown rumblings of a disgruntled military officer, but the prospect of the government of Nigeria being overthrown by Boko Haram is not far fetched. Thus far, Goodluck Jonathan has been wholly incapable of stopping the Islamist group’s advances, and much of the international community is not optimistic that the Nigerian military will be able to do so in the future. The upcoming Presidential elections, which have been scheduled for Valentine’s Day and, as of this writing, will go forward despite threats of violence and sabotage from Boko Haram, have the potential to halt Nigeria’s military collapse, as Goodluck Johnathan finds himself in a two horse race with Muhammadu Buhari, a retired general and Muslim from the north who was installed briefly as head of state in the mid 80s after a military coup and has since run unsuccessfully for President three times. Buhari is running his campaign partially on a platform that promises an end to the rampant corruption and economic inequality that have become endemic in Nigeria, but his broadest appeal lies in his military experience and his potential to repel the threat of Boko Haram in a way the Johnathan has been unable or unwilling to. In prior presidential elections, Buhari’s Muslim faith and fears of a radical Islamic agenda have made him an unpopular candidate in the more secular, Christian south, but given the extent of President Johnathan’s inability to contain Boko Haram, the south is beginning to warm up to him.

In the long run, no amount of military might will be able to defeat Boko Haram. Their meteoric rise may be cloaked in the tenets of fundamentalist Islam, but it is motivated by the wretched conditions the Nigerian people find themselves in, especially in the poorer northern half of the country. Despite having Africa’s largest economy and experiencing around 7 percent growth in GDP each year, most Nigerians still find themselves mired in poverty. In 2010, 61 percent of Nigerians lived on less than a dollar a day, with the majority of the impoverished living in the northern portion of the country, an area that has failed to benefit from Nigeria’s booming oil industry, which is located primarily in the south and is responsible for 95 percent of the country’s foreign income.

It is not coincidence that Boko Haram has found its success in northern Nigeria, where the poverty rates are thought to be as high as 80 percent and the effects of climate change—like the rapid disappearance of Lake Chad—are leaving millions out of work. The group’s membership is filled with the castaways and casualties of Nigeria’s disenfranchised youth—young men who see no hope in the livelihoods once pursued by their forbearers and gravitate towards a way of life that promises stability, order and the spoils of war. Regardless of whether Goodluck Jonathan or Muhammadu Buhari win in the upcoming presidential election, the only way that Boko Haram can be neutralized once and for all is to create an economy that breaks the “resource curse” and uses the country’s immense oil reserves to provide opportunities for all Nigerians—not just a select few in the upper echelons of government and industry. Boko Haram is not the problem. Boko Haram is the unfortunate reaction to the problem, and the only way to get rid of the latter is to address the former.