Leading article: Growing strife in Nigeria that must not be ignored

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At the start of 2012, after a year that saw the end of Osama bin Laden, the withdrawal of international forces from Iraq, and a surge of pop-ular uprisings across the Arab world, there had appeared to be some grounds for optimism. Even with all the inevitable caveats and qualifications, there was at least a glimmer of hope that an implacable "clash of civilisations" might not be quite so inescapable after all. With luck and good judgement, such may still be the case. But recent developments in Nigeria are a stark warning against complacency.

After terrorist bombs that killed more than 40 people across Africa's most populous country on Christmas Day, President Goodluck Jonathan has now declared a state of emergency, giving extra powers to security forces and closing parts of the country's border. He is also setting up a specialist counter-terrorism unit to take on Boko Haram, the Islamist terrorist group behind the attacks which hopes to kill its way to the imposition of sharia law.

The bloody reach of Boko Haram – whose name means "Western education is sinful" – is spreading alarmingly. Once largely confined to its base in the north-east, the group is now active throughout Nigeria and increasingly fanning out across North Africa. Over the past six months alone, the violence has escalated markedly: a litany of bombings, shootings and clashes with government security forces that culminated in the Christmas attacks on churches filled with worshippers. In such circumstances, it is not difficult to understand President Jonathan's clampdown. But force alone is unlikely to be a remedy.

Some – notably former President Olusegun Obasanjo – have called for talks with Boko Haram. But that is easier said than done. With members scattered across Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger, the group is difficult to pin down either militarily or with a view to constructive engagement. Equally, there is little to indicate any willingness to compromise.

The dangers should not be underestimated. The risk is not only that Boko Haram will succeed in capitalising on the long-unresolved tensions between Nigeria's poor, Muslim north and its richer, Christian south. There are also concerns that the violence will stimulate the complex tribal rivalries that have killed several thousand people in recent years. The deadly fight between the Ezza and Ezillo in the south-east which immediately preceded President Jonathan's declaration of a state of emergency may not be directly related to the Boko Haram bombings, but both add to a growing sense of a country slipping out of control.

Mr Jonathan has an unenviable task. He may hope that efforts to get to grips with Nigeria's more pressing problems – creating a sovereign wealth fund to shield oil revenues from corrupt officials, for example – may sap the sense of unfairness that fuels extremism. But behind the starry-eyed predictions that Nigeria could take South Africa's place as the continent's biggest economy within five years, the details are less promising. Corruption remains rife, unemployment dangerously high, and most of the country still has barely a few hours of electricity per day.

The situation is far from hopeless. The Arab Spring may have pushed several Islamist parties to the fore in the Middle East but, so far at least, none subscribe to the vicious, expansionist fundamentalism of al-Qa'ida. But the condolences from world leaders in the aftermath of the Christmas bombings in Nigeria were not enough. The rumbling rise of Boko Haram is a warning sign that violent groups linking their grievances to militant Islam are still a threat. President Jonathan needs all the help the international community can give him. The alternatives are bad for Nigeria, bad for North Africa, and bad for all of us.

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