The urgent challenges for Nigeria’s powerful northern state governors range from addressing a humanitarian crisis sparked by Boko Haram’s insurgency to boosting economic growth with alternatives such as agriculture to make up for declining oil revenue, Johnnie Carson, a senior advisor at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said ahead of a governors’ symposium to be held at the Institute next week. 

Children at the Dalori government camp set up for civilians who have fled the Boko Haram militant group, on the outskirts of Maiduguri, Nigeria, April 20, 2016. Many Nigerians who have returned from captivity after being kidnapped and raped by Boko Haram are met with suspicion that they have joined the militants’ ranks. (Ashley Gilbertson/The New York Times)
Children at the Dalori government camp set up for civilians who have fled the Boko Haram militant group, on the outskirts of Maiduguri, Nigeria. Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Ashley Gilbertson

The northern states of Africa’s most populous country are its poorest, and they are beset by social, economic and environmental problems that affect the stability of the whole nation, said Carson, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for Africa who is helping to organize the meeting. Such issues are the cause of underlying tensions that gave rise to the extremist Boko Haram group, and the governors have the clout to begin tackling them, he said.

“The Boko Haram situation cannot be resolved by military means alone,” said Carson, the State Department’s top official for Africa from 2009-2013. “The symposium will provide an opportunity to share our experience and open the way for new thinking and new ideas.”

For the governors, the priorities include immediate reconstruction of schools, hospitals and water systems as Boko Haram is pushed back, leaving behind a humanitarian disaster; expanded educational opportunities for girls; economic development; and easing tensions between farmers and herdsmen over land use.

“The Boko Haram situation cannot be resolved by military means alone.” – USIP Senior Advisor Johnnie Carson

“The shock of Boko Haram has created the understanding that things have to be different,” added Princeton Lyman, a USIP senior adviser who was ambassador to Nigeria from 1986-1989. The symposium—the second for northern state governors hosted by USIP—comes at a difficult time for Nigeria in other respects that have highlighted the need to revamp policies and practices, he said.

The collapse of world oil prices has left the governors with about 60 percent of their former budgets and made clear the need to diversify their economies further, Lyman said. With 62 percent of the country’s 180 million people living in extreme poverty, the expansion of agriculture, telecommunications and services, which led growth in the past five years, hasn’t occurred fast enough. 

Spurring Growth

Nigeria, Africa’s second-largest economy, fell into recession this year. On the national level, the 2016 budget of President Muhammadu Buhari seeks to stimulate growth with spending on infrastructure and by attacking corruption and government inefficiencies. It explicitly aims to reduce youth unemployment and extreme poverty. 

During the three days of the symposium from Oct. 18-20, the governors will meet with U.S. officials as well as business leaders to discuss Nigeria’s development and investment opportunities in the northern region. When they return home, the governors—all 19 from the north have been invited—will coordinate with a Senior Working Group of Nigerian civic, business and other leaders that USIP has helped establish to assist with implementing ideas coming out of the symposium.

“The conversations will be broad,” said Oge Onubogu, a senior program officer at USIP who works on Nigeria. While most of the symposium will be closed, governors will discuss their issues in a webcast forum, with the public posing questions via Twitter.

Nigeria is a regional powerhouse on the order of Brazil in Latin America or India in South Asia, with similar regional implications, Carson said. It is among the 10 biggest democracies in world—a claim bolstered by Buhari’s election last year, which marked the first time a sitting Nigerian president peacefully left office after defeat by an opposition party candidate. It was the biggest economy in Africa until plummeting oil prices knocked it into second place.

A strong Nigeria can stabilize West Africa and perhaps all of sub-Saharan Africa, Carson said.

Risks in the North

But conditions in the north pose a risk. Three northeastern states where Boko Haram is most active live under states of emergency and 26,000 people have been killed over the past seven years, Carson said. Kidnapping, assassinations and destruction of infrastructure have weakened the reach of the governors in the region who, like all Nigerian state chief executives, wield extensive fiscal, territorial, security and legal powers. More than 2 million people in the northeast have fled their homes and need to be returned or resettled, Onubogu said. Meanwhile, in Borno, the state most affected by Boko Haram, 240,000 children are suffering from severe malnutrition, according the United Nations; across the northeast about 4.5 million need food aid. 

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 Buhari, who took office in May 2015, the military campaign against the group has accelerated, 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.

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 address the roots of violent conflict in Nigeria that 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.

Now, the social, political and economic forces that spurred Boko Haram’s growth exist all across the north and could eventually trigger new outbreaks of violence after the extremist group is defeated militarily, Onubogu said.

“These conversations will go far beyond security,” she said.

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