How Nigeria Can Lead Again

04/10/2015 02:52 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2015

Recently, Boko Haram, the Nigerian insurgent group, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. The act of fealty was quickly accepted by the Islamic State through its spokesperson. When the pledge becomes cooperation on the battlefield, more violence and instability will follow in West Central Africa, the current theater of the insurgency, and far beyond.

Nigeria has a long history of strong leadership. Under both civilian and military rules in the past, Nigeria has provided a beneficial leadership in African affairs. For the sake of Nigeria, Africa and the world, it needs to lead again.

The proud history:

In April 1980, Zimbabwe became independent after free and fair elections. This result was achieved, paradoxically, with a substantial contribution of the military government of Nigeria. It used various tools of modern statecraft, including economic sanctions against the United Kingdom, to reach the desired outcome. It was a triumph for the giant of Africa just a decade after the traumatic Biafra war of secession. The military rulers of Lagos, then the capital of Nigeria, were using oil wealth and soft power to further a cherished common goal of African Nations.

More recently, under the civilian government led by Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria has accepted the ruling of the International Court of the Hague in favor of Cameroon in their territorial dispute on the Bakassi Peninsula. It was a unique outcome in the annals of territorial conflicts in Africa and maybe in the world; the government of a powerful country choosing to accept international rule of law instead of military conflict.

Nigeria has also been the backbone of regional peacekeeping operations in West Africa; Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea Bissau, to mention a few; and a reliable partner of the United Nations for missions far beyond.

In the past, the Nigerian people have supported the effort of its government to act as a responsible leader of Africa. At the end 1976, the Nigerian government established SARF (Southern Africa Relief Fund). Six months later, the fund has reached the considerable amount -- at the time -- of $10.5 million most of the money from citizen contributions. It was a substantial effort towards the alleviation of suffering caused by violent political conflicts in Southern Africa.

The current challenge: Boko Haram

The foreign affairs record of Nigeria until recently and all things considered is clear and positive, but the prospect of a regional leadership in the future is doubtful until the violent and corrupting insurgency of Boko Haram is quelled.

Boko Haram, born in the marginalized Northeast of Nigeria, has extended terrorist attacks to neighboring countries. Given the relative size of Nigeria, however, a conflict which appears to be an internal regional insurgency is an existential threat to a smaller neighbor. Boko Haram foreign incursions might be totally at odds with the proud Nigerian tradition, but in the eyes of the terrorized citizens of Cameroon, Chad and Niger, Nigeria now represents a security risk rather than the traditional economic opportunity.
This shadow foreign policy conducted by Boko Haram is an immense burden to Nigeria's neighbors and a threat to security of places far beyond Nigeria. In Cameroon, since at least 2013, that policy is killing, maiming and displacing subsistence farmers and cattle herders; it is generating a refugee crisis of immense proportion and an imminent famine; it is forcing the government of Cameroon to choose between education, food and physical security for it citizens, some of them infants; and it is generating human trafficking and tremendous suffering. The insurgency has to be tackled effectively for Nigeria to be again the benign power that it has been in the past.

The future: what to do about it

In democratic systems, elections are an opportunity for renewal, in Nigeria such an opportunity exists with this year's election. Nigerians should reaffirm their allegiance to a democratic and secular state; break the wasteful constraints of regionalism and finally align the interest of the elites with those of the people.

The first point is fundamental. Fortunately, most of the mainstream politicians are in agreement for a secular and democratic Nigeria with a clear separation between Church and State. After ballots are counted and the election is adjudicated, Muhammadu Buhari, the president-elect, must unite the political class, maybe in a national unity government, to heal Nigeria and address some of the root causes of the insurgency. It would also reassure concerned neighbors. United in their understanding of Nigeria as a secular and democratic country, political leaders will find the wisdom and the tools to further other Nigerian interests.

A united leadership has the chance to show Nigeria's mettle as a regional and African leader by defeating Boko Haram decisively. Neighbors and friends of Nigeria outside the regions are ready to provide the assistance needed. This will help the world contain and vanquish the Islamic State and break their growing arc of terror which now is extending further from the Middle East, north to Europe and south to West Africa. Yet as of now, Nigeria's hesitation represents a security risk for all of us.

As in 1976, a new fund could shape the Nigerian society in a positive way. Such a relief fund would contribute to economic and human development efforts in the Northeast of the country, the regional base of Boko Haram. The fund would also cover areas in neighboring countries that have been damaged by the actions of Boko Haram. This will enhance solidarity between countries and more importantly between the people of the area under stress who often share cultural and ethnic ties.

The African diaspora, in the wider possible meaning of the term, could also contribute to the relief effort as individuals in tandem with foreign governments and international agencies. Its participation to the peace process could be in the form of lending to the Nigerian government at low interest rates, a bond against terrorism. The bond issue proceeds would be directed to rehabilitation and training of demobilized Boko Haram fighters and other youth under similar socio economic circumstances.

Nigeria can lead again. For the sake of its people, Africa and the world, it must do so.