In the shadow of global headlines about ISIS and the Middle East, Nigeria’s government has pushed another of the world’s deadliest conflicts into a new phase. For months, Nigerian troops have been recapturing territory from the Boko Haram militant group, with support from the United States, which has sent special operations forces as advisors to help. But Nigeria’s crises, and any solutions, run wider and deeper than Boko Haram, according to U.S. Institute of Peace Program Officer Oge Onubogu.

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Drivers wait in line for fuel in Lagos, Nigeria, last month. Plummeting oil prices are devastating the economy and generating anger in a country that is among the world’s top oil producers. (Ashley Gilbertson/The New York Times)

The military successes of recent months raise the immediate stakes for Nigeria’s ability to stabilize the regions it has recovered, lest new rounds of violence erupt, says Onubogu, who oversees USIP programs in Nigeria. She discusses the Institute’s work with civil society, and with Nigeria’s powerful state governors, to build a more reliable path toward peace in Africa’s most populous nation.

You have said that the root causes of the conflict are deeper and more complex than are generally discussed—and that Boko Haram is more a symptom than a cause of the real problem. If that’s the case, what’s really driving the Nigeria conflict?

The root causes of the conflict are broad, but mostly centered on the fact that a lot of citizens feel excluded, politically or economically. Inequality is rising and people are frustrated with governance, especially over corruption. All this has created widespread frustration and alienation that has been fertile soil for groups such as Boko Haram.

In the north and in what Nigeria calls the “Middle Belt,” people depend heavily on the land. But climate change and drought have accelerated desertification. This has pushed nomadic herding peoples and farmers into worsened conflicts over how to share arable lands. And while poverty by itself does not lead to violent extremism such as that of Boko Haram, it contributes to the problem. Unemployment is massive, and poverty in the north for decades has been the deepest in the country.

The overwhelming narrative in the media suggests that Nigeria has a single conflict—religious extremists of Boko Haram against the state. This oversimplifies a complex situation. There are local conflicts, including those over land, and others between—or within—the main religious groups. And there are other identity conflicts.

Institutions of the state have been unable to respond to these local conflicts or the economic inequalities or the corruption—and that gave the space and context for Boko Haram to emerge. Boko Haram is a symptom of the root problem, not its cause. In fact, when Boko Haram first arose, it won initial support from some communities simply because people thought it might promise a measure of positive change and development.

If Boko Haram is not the cause of Nigeria’s violence, you’ve said, its elimination will not be the solution. What is the solution for Nigeria, then?

Yes, peace will not come simply with an elimination of Boko Haram. Nigeria needs a broad, national response—one that joins government and citizens —to restore governance in a way that meets the populations’ needs, especially for security and economic livelihoods.

To take an immediate problem as an example, the Nigerian military is recovering territories from Boko Haram, but we still have more than 2 million internally displaced people who don’t feel safe going home until they know that the underlying local conflicts can be resolved peacefully and their own security can be assured. In some of these communities, mostly in Borno state, the military works with local vigilante groups that are loosely connected in a Civilian Joint Task Force. These groups are considered by some in Nigeria as a genuine civilian response to the conflict, but they also at times have operated with little oversight and have harmed civilians.

Rebuilding effective governance will mean restoring security, maybe in part by integrating local forces into the official security structures, with the necessary vetting and training. Or those forces would have to be disarmed and returned to their previous livelihoods. Comparatively, uprooting Boko Haram is easier than settling local conflicts for the long term, ensuring justice and rebuilding state structures that will have to follow.

Can you give some examples of the complexities you’re talking about?

Sure. Violence has intensified from the farmer- nomadic herder conflicts, for example, and those clashes reportedly have killed thousands. Inaccurate local media reporting may also be pushing an unhelpful narrative about the conflict, and that could exacerbate existing ethnic prejudices. It also distracts everyone from the underlying causes.

You also have longstanding religious differences within the Shia Muslim community that have led to violent challenges to the state,. We saw an outbreak of that violence in December in the city of Zaria, in which the military opened fire and there was a substantial loss of life. That incident has only heightened concerns about the human rights record of Nigeria’s military in addressing the country’s security challenges.

In the end, Boko Haram is not unique, and it’s not just a northern Nigeria problem. Nigeria needs a truly national strategy for restoring state structures so they are seen as legitimate and meet people’s needs. This is what USIP is working to support.

Describe that last part. What is USIP doing in Nigeria?

USIP works in several areas. Most recently, we worked with a Nigerian think tank,  the Center for Democracy and Development - West Africa, to bring together civic leaders, academic scholars, policy professionals, business leaders and others in Abuja, the capital, to meet and clarify these complex, local drivers of Nigeria’s conflicts.

Looking ahead, we hope to develop this into two complementary initiatives. One is with the state governors, who are a powerful, critical layer of government authority in Nigeria—and the other is with civic leaders, non-government figures whose voices too often go unheard but who are essential to building a solution that will be effective. Nigeria needs these voices to be joined to build a consensus upon which society and government can work together.

Concretely, how is this likely to come about?

We hope to see our Nigerian partners develop an influential senior working group of these civic leaders who can foster a shared understanding about the crises and develop recommendations to resolve them. This group would have the kind of influence to push these recommendations into action.

A critical partner group for these senior civic figures will be the state governors. USIP convened a Northern Nigerian Governors’ Symposium, inviting 19 governors, in 2014. The governors are powerful, and they’re critical in responding to concerns raised by citizens. As the military pushes back Boko Haram, the governors will be essential to ensuring that stabilization follows, and that displaced people can feel safe in returning home.

We plan to work with the Nigeria Governors’ Forum, which can help shape policy. Along with the federal government and President Buhari, the governors will have to find a consensus about how to rebuild despite the severe economic pressures facing the country. For Nigeria’s future, an essential dialogue will be between these powerful governors and civic leadership that can be represented by this senior working group. We hope to see that engagement lead to the kind of broad-based, nationwide approach to resolving the crisis in the north. It’s critical not just for Nigeria, of course, but for Africa and the rest of us.

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