Demonstrators hold placards and banners reading “I Am Nigerian” (left) and “Stop Boko Haram” during a gathering in Paris Jan. 18, 2015, to protest the terror group.  
LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images

The closer we get to Nigeria’s upcoming presidential elections, set to take place Feb. 14, the worse it gets as Boko Haram is emboldened. What started off as a raggedy outlaw movement accessorizing Qurans is now a headlining existential threat to the African continent’s largest economy.

If you thought Boko Haram could do no worse than its infamous kidnapping of more than 250 Nigerian schoolgirls last summer, think again. In the past month, the Islamist insurgency has unleashed unspeakable terror throughout the region, from overrunning military bases along the Nigerian-Cameroonian border to now dispatching child suicide bombers in hits on populated centers. The most vicious offensive was the senseless genocidal-scale massacre of more than 2,000 men, women and children in the town of Baga three weeks ago. Critics continue to blast Western media outlets for the lack of news coverage.

But as Boko Haram becomes increasingly more violent and effective against Africa’s fifth-largest military, a more important matter remains elusive: How exactly do you defeat Boko Haram?

Can’t You Just Blow Them Up?

At the moment, not only will they not go away but they also seem to multiply.

From a pure defense perspective, at the least, you’ll need a competent and nimble military that’s able to meet Boko Haram wherever it hits. “You need a military that has the right equipment and training—and you need a military mindset that puts community safety first,” says Jennifer Cooke, the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Africa Program director, in a conversation with The Root.

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Still, Cooke understands that this isn’t quick and dirty. She’s the first to tell you that it’s “a multilayered problem that must be addressed from multiple layers at once.” In that sense, you’ll need an overall strategy that encompasses the military, the economy, the intelligence and the community engagement.

And while strategies to suppress Islamist terrorist groups like the Islamic State group and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula seem relatively more direct, attempts to shut down Boko Haram are twice as complex. The West African regional terrain is messy on numerous levels: politically, culturally and economically. That Nigeria’s own government, under current President Goodluck Jonathan, is reluctant to publicly acknowledge the magnitude of the crisis makes the situation that much harder.

“The military and economic tools are certainly important,” says Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical analysis for Stratfor, a prominent global intelligence and advisory firm. “But no strategy or tool is more important than the ideological.”

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Why Not Reason With Them?

Stewart tells The Root that rampant corruption and human rights abuses by the Nigerian military validate a broader “us vs. them” narrative that fuels rising animosity toward the current government. “Until they get that issue resolved, there’s not much hope.”

Hence, defeating Boko Haram really boils down to a virtually impossible hearts-and-minds calculus that’s bigger than Boko Haram. Any strategy would entail finding a way to radically ease long-standing tensions between the country’s North and South, or its largely Muslim and Christian political camps, respectively. It’s a classic poor-vs.-rich scenario, a case in which an impoverished North feels neglected and abandoned in the dust of a petroleum-rich South having a greater amount of loot to share.

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Another problem is the perception, primarily from the Muslim-dominated Northern region, that Jonathan is an illegitimate president. Many believe this year’s election has him actually gunning for a third term, since he was vice president for a few years before overtaking the presidency in 2010. That’s largely considered a violation of an unofficial, rotational leadership agreement between the North and South.

To bolster their cause, Northern politicians started quietly supporting and funding Boko Haram, according to Stratfor’s Stewart.

“Boko Haram has been operating on a well-crafted strategy, taking advantage of the religious, ethnic and political divide in the country,” activist Moyo Hicks tells The Root from Nigeria. “They carried attacks on churches, which made it seem they were against the Christians, and it didn’t spark a great outrage from the Northerners, who are mostly Muslims.”

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Can You Vote Them Out?

You definitely need dramatic political change in Nigeria. Tensions are rising fast as a competitive, presidential election approaches, with Muslims in the North fielding retired major general and short-lived ’80s-era dictator Muhammadu Buhari against the South’s oil-funded incumbent, Jonathan. On the surface, the expectation is that once Buhari is elected, Boko Haram pulls back.  

That’s unrealistic, though. Boko Haram is now clearly out of control, a once small, cult militia that’s mutated into an untamed beast of Northern chickens coming home to roost. Even if Buhari wins, Stewart tells The Root, his political influence could be nothing more than ceremonial. He won’t really be able to completely control the Boko Haram problem.

Would Redistributing the Wealth Help?

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Unless, of course, he figures out a way—and fast—to solve Nigeria’s poverty problem, which is much more pronounced in the North than the South. “Nigeria’s economic growth has not been inclusive, and the benefits of that growth have not been evenly distributed,” Jideofor Adibe tells The Root. Adibe, a political science lecturer at Nasarawa State University in Keffi, Nigeria, emphasizes that you can’t find an effective strategy against Boko Haram unless you do something about “the poverty and joblessness which creates a large pool of frustrated and alienated young men and women. Boko Haram preys on the vulnerability of this army of uneducated and poor young people.”

What Can the U.S. Do?

Not much. Or that’s what they tell us. American involvement is constrained by the Obama administration’s reluctance to support a ruthless military long known for its human rights abuses. For example, even as the Israelis recently moved in to sell a small batch of powerful, used Cobra attack helicopters to the Nigerian military, the U.S. stepped in and squashed it. China, however, is selling to Nigeria low-scale.

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Clearly, Nigeria can’t do it alone, which is why we’re seeing a lot more coordination among Nigerian, Chadian and Cameroonian armed forces. But more direct Western or U.S. involvement is risky, especially if it results in heavy civilian or noncombatant casualties—that’s a recipe for anti-Western effigies. However, if you can devise a plan that’s short and clinical, with few civilian casualties, it is possible … if Boko Haram doesn’t devour all of northeastern Nigeria first.

Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.