In the northeastern Nigerian state of Gombe, the brazen detonation of explosives in a crowded bus station in the state capital on Friday left four dead and more than thirty wounded. Although no group has claimed responsibility for this senseless act of violence at the time of writing, it is almost certain that the anti-western Islamist insurgent group Boko Haram carried out the attack. It is the latest in a series of bombings and kidnappings that have occurred since an October 17th ceasefire was purportedly reached between the Nigerian government and the militants. More than five years into the group’s campaign of terror, news stories like this continue to dominate headlines in Nigeria and elsewhere in western Africa. Boko Haram attracted worldwide attention for the kidnapping of over two hundred schoolgirls six months ago, inspiring the hashtag “bring back our girls” in social media. While some have managed to escape, most of the girls continue to be held hostage by the Islamic extremists.
Although the scale of Friday’s bombing was relatively small in comparison to others that the group has staged, it nevertheless represents a potential turning point in the militants’ war on the Nigerian state primarily because of the attack’s location. Boko Haram has succeeded in taking control of large areas in the deeply impoverished northeastern states of Adamawa, Borno, and Yobo where the group has flourished thanks in part to a lack of existing governmental institutions and infrastructure. Although the Nigerian government declared a state of emergency in each of these states in 2013, it failed to reestablish control over the region all but ensuring the absence of security and rule of law. With Friday’s attack, Boko Haram has veritably expanded its operations and presence into the neighboring state of Gombe. This underscores the fact that Boko Haram has greater territorial ambitions than the areas it presently controls and poses a long-term threat to the stability and cohesion of the Nigerian state. With an estimated five to ten thousand fighters (many of whom are coerced into joining), caches of stolen weapons, and a growing expertise in military exercises, Boko Haram is well equipped to pursue its agenda indefinitely and unimpeded.
This is bad news for Africa’s most populous country and largest economy. A major oil exporter with burgeoning industries, Nigeria’s GDP could grow by more than 7% a year for a decade or more according to some predictions. The rapid development that can accompany economic growth is already evident in Nigeria’s south, but the wealth that characterizes cosmopolitan urban centers like Lagos is a world away from the northeastern states where Boko Haram operates with relative impunity. In Nigeria’s northeast, three out of every four residents are below the poverty line, illiteracy is rampant, and schools are shuttered because of Boko Haram. Fighting Boko Haram is made all the more difficult because graft and corruption are virtually ubiquitous in Nigeria and the Nigerian army is ineffective in countering the insurgency. Juggling Boko Haram and such rapid economic growth will at some point become untenable. Nigeria’s future and prosperity depends on addressing the problem of Boko Haram before Nigeria begins to fracture.