05/19/2014 03:17 pm ET Updated Jul 19, 2014

Nigeria's Peace Path: Can Lessons from the Oil-Rich South Defeat Boko Haram?

As the news from Nigeria continues to spur a sense of foreboding about the country's future, there are some reasons for cautious optimism which should not be lost amidst despair over the rise of extremism and persistent poverty. Nigeria is among the world's most ethnically diverse countries with at least 375 tribal groups, many of whom retain their own ceremonial kings and chiefs as well as a religious divide between Muslims and Christians that straddles the definitive "10th parallel." The country endured a bloody civil war soon after independence in the 1960s which created the secessionist state of Biafra (1967-1970) in the oil-rich southeastern Niger Delta region of the country and led to over a million deaths due to violence and starvation. Cold war ideological allegiances were surprisingly not as evident in this particular struggle - France supported the Biafrans while the UK and the Soviet Union supported the Nigerian government in a divisive African "great game." Only Cote d'Ivoire, Gabon, Haiti, Tanzania and Zambia formally recognized the country. Eventually, the Nigerian State prevailed and has endured as a country despite persistent challenges, the most recent of which has been the rise of Boko Haram in the impoverished north of the country.

This year (2014) marks the centenary of "nationhood" for Nigeria when the Northern and Southern parts of the territory colonized by the British were administratively united. Although the country did not gain independence from the United Kingdom until 1960, the current Nigerian government is heralding 2014 as the "Nigerian Centenary" with celebratory billboards emblazoning the streets of the country. There is some degree of synthetic resolution to any country's nationhood but Africa's borders accentuate the scars of colonialism most acutely. Nevertheless, for Nigeria to recognize its national identity going back to a colonial period also reflects a level of maturity in attempting to pragmatically reconcile with its history. Nigerians have a rich and proud history of civilizational accomplishments by their various tribal ancestors. Benin City in the South as well as Kano in the North were centers of trade and commerce with impressive walled cities over a thousand years hence. The ramparts of the Benin city wall are still visible today which was once the world's second largest man-made structure after China's Great Wall.

Resource nationalism and strife continued in the Niger delta region long after the Biafran war for the next three decades or so alongside heavy-handed military tactics by the federal government against tribal members (most notably the execution of Ogoni environmentalist Ken Saro Wiwa by the Abacha dictatorship in 1995). A marginal presence of a Biafran independence movement known as the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) also continued for many years but the Nigerian State has generally been able to overcome the secessionist sentiment. Lawsuits and violence against oil companies which were often considered culpable for neglect in the absence of government services continued for years but within the last decade or so, there has been a palpable yet chaotic peace in the Niger delta. Most of the lawsuits brought forth overseas were either settled out-of-court or the jurisdiction of statute was highly constrained by the courts with reference to recovery of any torts claims.

After violence and crime forced Chevron to close operations in 2003, there was a concerted effort to establish a "Global Memorandum of Understanding" to improve the impact of community development programs. Despite continuing criticism over the slow speed of development, much has changed in Southeastern Nigeria for the better. Terrorist movements such as MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) which were involved in the 2010 Abuja bombings, have lost much popular support as economic conditions improve. This improvement has come about through a mixture of genuine investment from the government as the current President Goodluck Jonathan is from the Niger Delta region but also due to revenues from oil theft making their way into the black market economy. Poverty levels in Nigeria are hard to measure but by some metrics the states in the Niger delta now have the lowest poverty levels in the country when only a few years ago states like Bayelsa were ranked among the poorest. Inequality remains a challenge for the entire country but the overall inequality levels in the Niger Delta are also below the national average. Progress has also been made in education and health care with female literacy and vaccination prevalence highest among the Niger Delta states which also have the most reasonable demographic profile in terms of total fertility rates and age distribution of the labor force. The Delta state is also trying hard to defy the "resource curse" with its new investment marketing campaign that states in bold captions "Delta Beyond Oil." The major city of the region Port Harcourt is also highlighting its educational credentials this year by being selected as the UNESCO World Book Capital for 2014.

A cynical perspective may lead us to conclude that the Boko Haram conflict is simply being spurred by domestic Muslim politicians to embarrass the current Christian president and the reverse was true when a Muslim president was in power and tensions raged in the Christian-dominant Southeast. Yet, the human development indicators that are beginning to improve in the Niger Delta appear to transcend short-term political cycles. Of course, there is no room to be sanguine about the Southeast either. Various criminal gangs continue to operate in the Niger Delta, engaging in kidnappings for ransom and widespread oil theft is costing the Nigerian tax coffers over a billion dollars a month. The writ of the state is still needed for law enforcement just as much in the North as the South. However, the persistence of education and health care as well as innovative efforts at community development from both top-down initiatives as well as bottom-up efforts are beginning to slowly converge. Both the North and the South remain deeply religious but the absolutism and exclusion of preachers in the South has diminished as literacy has gone up and absolute poverty has gone down.

The much neglected North also has core competencies in terms of its natural resource base as well as established institutions that could be further cultivated to provide a firm economic footing for the region. Such investment would make the Boko Haram's vengeful nihilism less attractive to troubled youth and allow for the voices of moderate Nigerian Muslims to prevail. Interestingly enough, the American University of Nigeria is actually based in Yola, the capital of the currently restive Northeastern state of Adamawa. The university which is part of the greater American University network is one of the finer institutions of higher learning in the country, and there is much potential to use its presence in developing a knowledge economy cluster in this region. The Chad Basin National Park and the adjoining Wara National Park in Cameroon boast some of the finest large mammals populations in Central-West Africa and the area is a UNESCO Biosphere reserve. With proper investment and security there is much potential for a tourist economy here as well.

Investment by the Nigerian government and donors to develop a cluster of economic opportunities that are navigated through a community process similar to the Global Memorandum of Understanding which was negotiated in the Niger Delta has much potential to bring peace. A limited amnesty and disarming of militants similar to what was negotiated in the Niger delta in 2010 may also help to mitigate community unrest, though ideological criminals who are unlikely to disarm will need a military enforcement response as well. There will surely be no quick solutions to the strife in the North but a process of positive engagement and lesson-drawing within Nigeria offers some hope to restore peace in this vibrant and vital nation.