Boko Haram poses a Catch-22 for the Nigerian government

By Philippe de Pontet

The Aug. 26 car bombing of a U.N. building in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, which killed more than twenty people and wounded dozens more, suggests that the Islamist militant group Boko Haram may be in cahoots with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). This sobering development constitutes President Goodluck Jonathan's most acute political and security challenge yet. If he responds decisively, he could further alienate northerners who resent his rule and would consider a poorly managed crackdown a provocation targeting Muslim communities. If he proceeds too cautiously, he risks frustrating his southern, largely Christian political base while reinforcing his image as an indecisive "accidental president." Either way, Jonathan's unlikely to come out a winner.

While headquartered in Nigeria's economically depressed northeast, Boko Haram (whose Hausa name translates roughly to "Western education is sinful") has steadily expanded its geographical reach, targets, and tactics since 2009. After the group's founder, Mohammed Yusuf, was killed by Nigerian forces that July, Boko Haram got busy establishing mosques, schools, and other institutions throughout the north while stepping up its attacks on government targets. When Jonathan, a Christian from the southern Niger Delta, assumed the presidency, the group's ambitions became national in scope. And the latest attack indicates that the militants' struggle has become somewhat international, with all the hallmarks of an al Qaeda connection.

So far, the Jonathan administration has responded cautiously to the car bombing. For days it delayed confirming Boko Haram's role, even after the group claimed responsibility for the attack both online and in a press briefing. The government's tactic may prove shrewd, given that Nigeria's electorate is divided along highly charged regional lines and many northern community leaders, politicians, and imams are worried that innocent Muslim civilians could suffer from a heavy-handed government response.

On the other hand, the administration's response could be the product of paralysis and indecision. And those who see it that way -- particularly southern Christians who consider the Islamist movement a growing national menace -- are calling for retribution and a show of force. A handful of prominent northern leaders, including presidential runner-up Muhamadu Buhari, have also called for a swift response.

Caught in the middle as he is, Jonathan will likely try to strike a balance between hawkish military and police action aimed at weakening Boko Haram's base and increased funding for compliant northern governors. The first prong of his approach will be to beef up security in Abuja, Kano, and other urban centers and launch targeted military offensives on suspected militant hideouts. If bungled, such a campaign could spark a backlash against Jonathan, and possibly a recruiting bonanza for Boko Haram. The second prong of the approach will likely be to funnel funding through northern governors to help ameliorate underlying grievances such as grinding poverty and high youth unemployment. But this won't be possible without a prolonged period of legislative debate, which could further calcify the country's regional fault lines. And unlike the rebels of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), Boko Haram's absolutist ambitions may not be amenable to political negotiation or payoffs.

Philippe de Pontet is director of Eurasia Group's Africa practice.

Henry Chukwuedo/AFP/Getty Images