Governors from northern Nigeria, where the U.S. military is helping quell the Boko Haram militant group, will convene at the U.S. Institute of Peace for the second time this October to agree on civilian actions they can take to address the root causes of violent extremism and help ensure that efforts to stabilize this vital region will stick. Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson, a USIP senior advisor helping organize the gathering, said Nigerian governors are some of the most powerful figures in a country that ranks as the continent’s second-largest economy and a political, communications and petroleum giant.

Imam Muhammad Ashafa and Pastor James Wuve
Imam Muhammad Ashafa and Pastor James Wuve during a conversation held with Nancy Lindborg and the staff at the Interfaith Mediation Center in Kaduna State.

“Northern Nigeria is an area of increasing importance—but also increasing instability and conflict, as a result of Boko Haram,” Carson said. “The United States is engaged there in order to combat violent extremism, to work with leaders there to encourage development, undercut radical recruitment and to build a stronger foundation with an extraordinary, increasingly important Islamic community.”

“Northern Nigeria is an area of increasing importance—but also increasing instability and conflict, as a result of Boko Haram.” – USIP Senior Advisor and Former Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson

In 2014, Boko Haram ranked as the world’s deadliest extremist group, killing 6,644 people and outpacing the self-styled Islamic State, or ISIS, according to the Global Terrorism Index, published by the Institute for Economics and Peace. The group came to particular international prominence in 2014, when it abducted hundreds of young girls and sparked a civic movement called #BringBackOurGirls. Under President Muhammadu Buhari, who took office in May 2015, Nigeria has accelerated its military campaign against Boko Haram, and the U.S. this year committed special operations advisors to aid in the fight. The group’s militancy already had spilled into neighboring Niger, Chad and Cameroon, destabilizing those countries as well.

All of Nigeria’s governors “have taken on increasing importance and influence over the last decade and a half, and like governors in the United States, some are as influential at the national level as they are at the state level,” said Carson, who led the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs from May 2009 to March 2013. Their gubernatorial terms are limited, and many of them go on to become senators, representatives and even Cabinet officials in Abuja. USIP’s approach is designed to connect work with the governors to the national level as well.

The U.S. government, recognizing the pivotal role of Nigeria’s governors, has increased its engagement in recent years, as well. Secretary of State John Kerry met with several governors during his visit to Nigeria in August, and delivered a speech at the palace of the Sultan of Sokoto, an influential Muslim leader in the region. Kerry said the fight against violent extremism will “require sustained effort from all of us – from regional, national, and sub-national leaders.”

With a population of 180 million, Nigeria is the continent's most populous state, as well as its largest Muslim country, and its biggest democracy. More than half of the country’s citizens live in northern Nigeria, which Carson calls the largest predominantly Muslim area in the world without official U.S. representation, because Washington has no consulates or other diplomatic presence there.

Factors Fueling Boko Haram

The Boko Haram insurgency is fueled by a range of factors, said Oge Onubogu, a senior program officer at USIP who works on Nigeria. They include local conflicts over land and between or within religious groups; climate change and drought that are turning agricultural land into desert; and the frustration of citizens over unemployment, corruption and political and economic inequality.

Furthermore, some of the more than 2 million Nigerians who’ve been forced from their homes by the Boko Haram insurgency are afraid to return even when areas are recaptured by government forces, because the underlying power struggles and other issues still foment instability and insecurity. Governors can play a crucial role in improving those conditions, Onubogu said.

One hurdle, for example, is developing Nigeria’s education system, and that requires far more than just constructing new schools. Poverty, religious traditions and weakness or corruption of secular institutions often kept enrollment low in state schools, so those kinds of issues must also be addressed, Onubogu said.

During his visit to Nigeria, Secretary Kerry said, “Beating Boko Haram on the battlefield is only the beginning of what we need to do.”

USIP has demonstrated its ability to bring together officials and civic leaders concerned with these issues, whether from within Nigeria or from the humanitarian or development aid communities in Washington and elsewhere, she said.

Powers of Governors

For their part, Nigeria’s 36 state governors—19 of them in the north—have extensive fiscal, territorial, security and legal powers. They also control the allocation of certain federal revenue that accounts for about half of all government spending.

Fifteen heads of the 19 northern states committed to attend the first time that USIP convened a symposium of the group in March 2014, though two had to turn back because of outbreaks of violence in their states. Their two-day visit included meetings with top U.S. officials such as National Security Advisor Susan Rice. Most of the governors who will attend the symposium in October have been newly elected to their positions since the last meeting, but some have held national office previously, such as in Nigeria’s National Assembly.

The work with governors is part of a broader USIP program to get to the roots of violent conflict in Nigeria that also includes strengthening interfaith cooperation and the ability of young people to hold authorities accountable. Nigeria’s youth population is due to expand by 60 percent in the next 15 years, according to a United Nations report. USIP has worked extensively on interfaith cooperation in conflict zones, and in Nigeria more than a decade ago helped some of the country’s most prominent Muslim and Christian leaders mediate peace between their communities in large sections of Plateau and Kaduna states.

“If we’re able to work with the governors in northern Nigeria to be able to address the root causes of some of these issues, it only makes Nigeria stronger as a country,” Onubogu said.

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