The trouble with conflating Boko Haram and al Qaeda

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Boko Haram and al Qaeda have almost nothing to do with each other, but the Nigerian government welcomes a perceived link so it can claim to have less responsibility for what is really a domestic issue, said Osita Ogbu, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Ogbu, who is also a professor of economics and director of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, spoke March 23 on a panel at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Va.

Boko Haram is a northern Nigerian militant group that came to increased international prominence after its Aug. 26, 2011 suicide bomber attack on the United Nations' headquarters in Abija, Nigeria, killing 23 and injuring more than 80.

This sparked concern that the group might evolve into a threat to the United States. Ogbu said that Boko Haram encourages the false link because it increases the fear it can cause.

Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agreed with Ogbu that the perception of a link between the groups gives the Nigerian government an easy out from solving a domestic problem.

She expressed concern, though, that Nigeria's response will rely too much on its military, which has a poor reputation because of the country's years of military dictatorship. And in any case, she said dealing with Boko Haram requires community engagement to address grievances about the poverty, lack of education and poor health conditions that plague much of northern Nigeria; police are better equipped than military forces to handle that kind of work.

But unfortunately, the police in Nigeria are underfunded and not taken seriously enough, Cooke noted.

Cooke added that Boko Haram is unpopular, so the government has the opportunity to drive a narrative that persuades people that it can address their grievances.

Gus Fahey, senior Nigeria desk officer in the State Department's Bureau of African Affairs, also stressed the idea that the Nigerian government must create a new narrative. "It should be easy to push back against a criminal group that everybody hates, basically," yet Boko Haram seems for some northern Nigerians to voice concerns about poverty and related ills better than the government, which has failed to address those issues.

Fahey does see a model for success in Nigeria's recent electoral reform, which led to free and fair elections in 2011 according to 91 percent of Nigerians polled, up from 30 percent in 2007, he said.

He advised the government to choose a "prominent, credible, reliable point person on northern Nigerian issues" to address grievances. Then, civil society groups can multiply efforts to counter Boko Haram's message while knowing that the government can effectively back them up.

For more:
- visit the Potomac Institute's event webpage (archived webcast available)

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