If there was one person attending this week’s deftly staged U.S-Africa Leaders Summit that wanted the word “Ebola” to dominate every headline, it would probably be Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan.
Anything to keep Boko Haram out of the discussion.
Nigeria’s bad boys have managed to position themselves from little-known band of pseudo-Islamic thugs taking selfies with unread Qurans to the most reviled and proudly public terrorist organization in the world. When al-Shabaab hit a suburban Kenyan mall in 2013, killing 67 innocents and wounding an additional 175, Boko Haram—not to be outdone—suddenly muscled up, and several months later, they were making headlines after engineering mass kidnappings of several hundred Nigerian schoolgirls, confounding the Nigerian military and triggering unprecedented global hash-tagging outrage.
To say that luck isn’t good for President Jonathan isn’t only a corny play on words but also among the many understatements we’ll hear out of a gathering of 50 African leaders plus one black leader of the free world. Jonathan is, arguably, the start of a long-awaited experiment in Nigerian democracy since the end of ultramilitary and military-lite rule in the West African behemoth since 2007—the year that his predecessor, the late Alhaji Umaru Yar’Adua, was sworn in after the two terms of former military head of state, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo.
Faced with a re-election bid in 2015, Jonathan is, for the most part, viewed as a sure shot for four more years (even though rivals are building a constitutional case that his two terms are up). But in his country’s very disenchanted Northeast is the nasty uprising that won’t go away.
Granted, Boko Haram and #BringBackOurGirls suddenly lost their steady top-10 trend on Twitter after fresher global crises, from Iraq to Gaza to Ukraine, took away headlines. But Jonathan knows better, as the insurgency is increasingly more sophisticated and brazen in its attacks. Boko Haram is aiming for a strict Shariah franchise as it gradually expands activities beyond its Northeastern grass roots. While recent car bombs in major Nigerian cities like Lagos and the capital, Abuja, may have looked clumsy compared with similar incidents in Iraq, clearly it’s a sign that Boko Haram wants to play outside its lane.
That Jonathan can’t rein in Boko Haram is both embarrassing and telling—considering the fact, according to the most recent Global Firepower ranking, that he has one of the five largest armies on the African continent at his disposal. Continued corruption, though, eats away at the core of his army’s top brass, and Boko Haram is smartly lining up its agenda with political resentment in the Northeast, tinged with Muslims’ rejection of Jonathan as the Christian compromise president from the South.
Of the many storylines emerging from the U.S.-Africa summit, in the postmortem will be several highlighting Nigeria as a pillar of continental growth. It’s like a big bank on Wall Street: too big to fail.
Even if Freedom House ranks it in the “partly free” category, Nigeria has a president who is still leader of a half-democratic country in a vast region where nearly half the neighbors are despots (pdf). Its population of 175 million is Africa’s largest, and the seventh largest in the world. And this year, Nigeria’s economy surpassed South Africa’s with the continent’s top gross domestic product.
That’s both a blessing and a curse. All eyes will look to Nigeria as both an economic and a political linchpin for Africa. But Jonathan is faced with pressure to keep the border-hopping Boko Haram crisis contained. Growing Obama-administration worries focus on Boko Haram as potentially destabilizing, since Nigeria is still one of 10 top oil suppliers to the United States, even as imports have decreased substantially over the past decade. If a separate anti-oil-company uprising in the South is fully refreshed by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, that could irreparably squeeze Nigerian security resources stretched thin from Boko Haram, and further reduce the country’s appeal as a once prominent oil center.