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Terror in Nigeria
Boko Haram and the Great Famine

A terrible famine is coming to Nigeria, the New York Times reports:

Nearly a quarter of a million children are severely malnourished because Boko Haram has disrupted trade and farming, U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Toby Lanzer warned at a meeting in Brussels on Thursday. About 2 million people in the region have not been reached, “and we can’t assess their situation. We can estimate that it’s awful.”

With Nigeria in a recession and without speedy outside help, “we will see, I think, a famine unlike any we have ever seen anywhere,” he said.

When Boko Haram abducted the 200 Chibok girls in April 2014, the kidnapped schoolgirls became a cause célèbre the world over. The international news media posted story after story on the schoolgirls. Editorials called for a muscular American military response to Nigeria’s worrisome terrorist threat. Michelle Obama even tweeted a picture with the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls.

To date, only two of the Chibok girls have been found. But as it is becoming clear, the missing girls represent only the most publicized of Boko Haram’s many crimes.

Nigeria’s security forces are behind a bloody and haphazard war of attrition that is pushing Boko Haram out of its old stronghold in Borno, a majority-Muslim state in Nigeria’s northeast. As Boko Haram withdraws, the full extent of the devastation it has wrought is now coming into full view.

Nigeria’s economy is slipping into recession and Boko Haram’s resilience means that even “liberated” areas may be too dangerous for aid to be distributed.

This much is clear: Nigeria does not have the resources to cope with a famine affecting millions, and those with the resources—leading world powers, the UN, and NGOs—have yet to give this crisis the attention it deserves. Failure to alleviate the suffering in Borno would mean squandering the gains of liberation from Boko Haram. The longer the people of Borno starve, the less they will blame the militants of Boko Haram (who started the famine) and the more they will condemn the elites in Abuja and Lagos who could have marshaled international support to end the famine.

And a famine in Borno is not just a Nigerian problem. Refugees from Borno could stream into Chad or Cameroon. But even outside Nigeria, things wouldn’t be much better. Weak state structures, corrupt state officials, absentee teachers, and bad roads are the norm in the parts of sub-Saharan where Muslims and Christians live together, sometimes quite happily, but often in constant tension. The Sahel is very difficult to police, harder to develop, and increasingly subject to radical insurgencies. Some are religious in nature, some ethnic, but clear across Africa there are ominous signs of growing conflict and instability.

Famines like the one shaping up in Nigeria are a consequence of these insurgencies. In many cases, famine strengthens insurgencies, as hunger weakens those who might otherwise resist insurgent rule from within occupied territory. Faced with starving families, desperate fathers and brothers may even enlist in groups that promise a bit of pay and food—even if they don’t really believe in the ideological slant. Hunger is one of the oldest forms of social control.

A weak Nigerian state with a starving periphery isn’t in anyone’s interest. It’s a recipe for refugees and continued rebellion, whether under the guise of Boko Haram or another group. Famine by itself is terrible enough and worthy of our attention for purely humanitarian reasons; but the engagement of international jihadi networks in the region should make doing something a priority.

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