Nigeria at a crossroads: The Boko Haram challenge

Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa. Credit: ITV News

By ITV News International Affairs Editor Rageh Omaar

Nigeria is one of Africa’s most important and powerful countries, yet it now faces a challenge to its very identity as a diverse yet harmonious country, made up of different tribes, languages and religions.

It is a challenge posed by what began as a minor Islamist uprising in the north of the country, but which has developed into a national crisis.

The insurgency by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram, whose name means western influence is forbidden, has raged through the north of the country for over three years. Many people have been left dead as a result of the conflict in which a hall mark of Boko Haram’s warfare has been to attack schools, especially those educating Nigerian girls.

However it took the abduction of over two hundred girls from a school in the town of Chibok, in the northern state of Borno, in March to finally make the world aware of this war.

My very first foreign assignment as a reporter was to Nigeria. It was an exciting, rollercoaster of a story where a charismatic but controversial civilian politician’s victory in a presidential election was cut short by a military coup.

A map of religion and poverty in Nigeria. Credit: ITV News

I have a soft spot for Nigeria. I returned to report on the story of the abducted girls and travelled around the north of the country to find out what lies behind this crisis.

Nigeria is the most populous country on the continent where every one in five Africans is a Nigerian.

A member of OPEC it is a major oil producer providing significant supplies to the US and India amongst others, and it has the largest army in Africa.

It is also a nation that mirrors the diversity of Africa; it has dozens of different tribal and ethnic groups speaking hundreds of dialects.

The country is divided along religious lines. Credit: ITV News

But this former British colony has always been defined by one critical division; between a largely Muslim and impoverished north, where Boko Haram's insurgency is centred, and a largely Christian and oil-rich south which includes the commercial capital of Lagos.

Senior officials in Borno state told me how chronic poverty, and what they described to me as the neglect of the north by the Federal government of Nigeria - was a driving force behind the spread of Boko Haram's message.

A senior Christian leader in the capital, Abuja told me he believed that one of the aims of Boko Haram was exploit the differences between Nigeria's two main faiths and incite a religious war between Christian and Muslim, but that he believed this had failed.

Borno's state governor His Excellency Alhaji Umar. Credit: ITV News

The widening economic gulf between Nigeria's largely Muslim north and its largely Christian south is something that Boko Haram is trying to exploit and if it continues to deepen, its insurgency will only grow stronger - thus threatening the stability and future of Nigeria

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