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Nigeria's Boko Haram attacks are misunderstood as regional Islamist threat

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Boko Haram is Nigeria’s most visible and vicious militant group, but it is not the only one. In the oil-rich south, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta roams the swamps and links up with politicians in the crumbling cities.

Nor is Boko Haram (whose name means “Western education is a sin”) the country’s only jihadi group. Hisba, a collection of Islamist vigilante gangs, also operates in the north. Both tap into decades of tribal violence among Nigeria’s communities, often manipulated by politicians for political gain and profit.

The groups’ grievances are usually portrayed as religious. Indeed, their targets are often Christians. In 1999, the north adopted Sharia law. But that neither quelled Islamist mobilization there nor addressed deep dissatisfaction with socioeconomic conditions and poor governance.

Instead, vociferous religious ideology often obscures violence driven more by economic factors.

For example, migration by the ethnic Hausa Fulani into Yoruba lands in northern Nigeria has produced conflict. The fact that the Yoruba are predominantly Christians and the Hausa Fulani Muslims matters only secondarily. Rather, the Hausa-Fulani Boko Haram is infusing religion into a long-churning brew of grievances about wealth and power distribution, corruption, and injustice.

The Nigerian government has responded poorly not only to the long-standing communal tensions, but also to the specific case of Boko Haram. The government has often ignored or instigated  tensions, while brutally and indiscriminately overreacting to Boko Haram.

Although Nigeria’s police are more capacious than most in West Africa, they overwhelmingly lack intelligence capacity and the ability to either disrupt attacks before they happen or track down real culprits who are at times connected to key local politicians.

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