This article originally appeared on ForeignAffairs.com, May 10, 2014
The abduction last month of 276 schoolgirls in northeastern Nigeria by the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram has become international news. In a video that surfaced this week, Boko Haram’s leader issued a chilling message in which he called the girls “slaves” and threatened to “sell them in the market.” Soon after, a social media campaign called #BringBackOurGirls went viral. And this week, First Lady Michele Obama even tweeted a photo of herself holding a sign with the campaign’s hashtag. Governments around the world, including those of the United States and China, have offered to help track down the terrorists.
It is surprising that it has taken so long for Boko Haram’s murderous rampages to garner such attention. Although linked to various al Qaeda groups, Boko Haram is a homegrown movement in impoverished northeastern Nigeria. It was born of desperation and anger at the government’s corruption and ineffectiveness. As one Nigerian journalist put it, Mohammed Yusuf, the group’s first leader, “would have found it difficult to gain a lot of these people if he was operating in a functional state. But his teaching was easily accepted because the environment, the frustrations, the corruption, [and] the injustice made it fertile for his ideology to grow fast, very fast, like wildfire.”
Like the group’s roots, its aims are local. Its harsh, fundamentalist version of Islam rejects Western and secular influences and calls for the establishment of a “pure” Islamic state in Nigeria. To that end, the group has been committing heinous attacks across the country’s north for years, frequently targeting schools. In a particularly gruesome incident in February, Boko Haram attacked a boarding school in the north, killing dozens of teenage boys in the night. Some were burned alive. In that raid, the girls were spared. They were told to return home, renounce secular education, and get married.
Boko Haram’s terrorist tactics across its stronghold in Muslim-majority northern Nigeria could exacerbate already significant regional disparities. The north lags considerably behind the south when it comes to education (and nearly every other development metric, besides). In 2010, the primary school enrollment rate in the northern state of Zamfara was just 18 percent, compared to 86 percent in the southern state of Anambra. In some northern regions, only 20 percent of women can read.
The only way to improve the region’s prospects — and to prevent further attacks on schoolgirls and boys — will be to get serious about dealing with Boko Haram. And to do that, the Nigerian government must rethink its counter-terrorism strategy.
So why does Boko Haram target schools? For one, the group sees them as a font of corrupt Western influences and secular education, which it views as a threat to its strict Islamic values. (The group’s name roughly translates to “secular education is a sin.”)
In addition, Boko Haram is savvy enough to recognize that Nigeria’s pitiful education system is an enormous vulnerability. The country is one of the world’s biggest oil producers, meaning that it should have revenue for schools to spare. Yet every year since 1991, the amount of Gross National Income that has gone toward education has been less than one percent, giving Nigeria the ignominious distinction of spending less on educations as a percentage of GNI than every other nation on earth, except Myanmar.
Further, although state schools are supposed to be free to attend, Nigerian students are required to buy books and uniforms themselves. The average cost is $200, which is prohibitive for many families. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Nigeria’s overall literacy rate — 51.1 percent — is significantly lower than that in neighboring Kenya (72.2 percent), Zimbabwe (83.6 percent), and Brazil (90.4 percent) and that, as recently as 2007, the country accounted for between 30 and 40 percent of the world’s total number of out-of-school children.
There is also a huge gender gap in education. In 2010, approximately 65 percent of primary school children in the North were male and 35 percent were female. Nationally, whereas 76 percent of Nigerian boys (age 15-24) are literate, only 58 percent of Nigerian girls in the same age group can read. By comparison, in Kenya, 82 percent of girls and 83 percent of boys are literate; and literacy among youth in Brazil is 98 percent for girls and 97 percent for boys. Nigerians view their booming population — the largest in Africa at nearly 170 million — as an asset. But with too few young people receiving an adequate education, it might well be a risk to development, prosperity, and security instead.
Abuja has long relied on indiscriminate force to fight Boko Haram, which has only resulted in massive civilian casualties, fueled popular distrust of government forces, and left vulnerable villagers feeling trapped between radical extremists who favor no-holds-barred violence and an ineffective, even disinterested government that is also willing to resort to brutality.
To defeat Boko Haram, the Nigerian government must mount a more effective and professional military operation (rescuing the missing girls would be a good start), but also address the underlying issues that fuel the movement. In a speech in March, Nigerian National Security Adviser Mohammad Sambo Dasuki identified regional poverty, insecurity, unemployment, and a growing youth bulge as main causes behind Boko Haram’s rise. His comments give hope that the government is ready to start fixing those problems. His new approach, dubbed “Nigeria’s Soft Approach to Countering Terrorism,” would involve partnering with religious leaders, families, journalists, and civil society organizations to counter extremism and prevent further radicalization.
It would also involve reaching out to convicted terrorists “through prison programs engaging them in theological, ideological and entrepreneurial value change that leads to a change in behavior.” In this, Nigeria would do well to study the efforts of other countries, such as Afghanistan, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia that have pursued similar deradicalization initiatives with some success. Nigeria has already gotten involved as an organizing partner in the establishment of the new U.S.-backed Global Fund for Community Engagement and Resilience, a multilateral organization designed to counter violent extremism at the local level, and it is a prime destination for early program funds.
Meanwhile, Nigeria must also address severe inequality. Between 2004 and 2012, the number of people living on less than $1 a day has grown from 55 percent to 69 percent of the population. An ambitious overhaul of education — both as a down-payment on the future and as a national rebuttal to Boko Haram — is as good a place as any to start. Increasing education spending from its current level of less than one percent of GDP to four percent of GDP would bring Nigeria in line with other developing economies. Much of that increased spending should be directed toward the north of the country where educational attainment is lowest. Closing the country’s shameful gender gaps in enrollment and graduation rates must also be a priority. This will require specific programs that address cultural barriers to girls going to school. Meeting parents’ real — and growing — safety concerns about sending girls to schools is also imperative. After all, Nigeria’s future depends on it being able to educate all its children.