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Heavy traffic is seen on a bridge in Ikoyi neighbourhood in Lagos March 27, 2012.Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters

When the first bomb exploded at dawn, it shook the ceiling and floor and the shabby furniture in Alice Mayaki's small cluttered house. Crying and trembling, she rushed outside and saw dozens of dead bodies.

Two weeks later, another bomb exploded in almost exactly the same spot. More than 90 people were killed in the two blasts. "Everyone is afraid," Ms. Mayaki says. "I don't go into town. Should I go, or should I not go? Life is very dangerous now."

Abuja, the Nigerian capital, is the city of the big men: the politicians who control the enormous oil wealth and state resources of Africa's biggest economy. But when the Boko Haram rebellion came to the capital this year, the big men were safely protected by guards and checkpoints. The explosions hit the migrant workers in the slums as they queued for their morning buses.

"It was the poor people who were going to work early," said Ms. Mayaki, a nurse who migrated here from southwestern Nigeria. "It was the people who clean and sweep the offices for the big men. They were the ones who were killed."

Nigeria's rich and powerful, its politicians and military leaders from Lagos to Abuja, have been comfortably immune to the brutal northern insurgency – which may help to explain why it continues to escalate. The rebellion has exposed the extreme gulf between rich and poor in one of Africa's most unequal countries. And this widening gap has fuelled the anger and alienation that makes it easy for Boko Haram to find recruits for its murderous militia.

As the insurgency spreads across northern Nigeria and into its "Middle Belt" in the centre, its guns and bombs are targeting Nigeria's most vulnerable groups: rural villagers, migrants, street vendors, small market traders, the unemployed – and, most notoriously, the schoolgirls of Chibok, more than 200 of whom were kidnapped by Boko Haram in April.

This was supposed to be Nigeria's year to celebrate its brand-new status as Africa's biggest economy. By the end of the century, the former "sleeping giant" of Africa will overtake the United States as the third-biggest country in the world by population. Its fate could be crucial to the future of the African economy. Yet the rapidly escalating Boko Haram rebellion is exposing the deep dysfunction in Nigeria, putting Nigeria on the path to potential "failed state" status, and contributing to the spread of Islamist extremism across West Africa.

Nigeria's futile search for the kidnapped schoolgirls is now entering its third month, despite military support from the United States, Britain, Canada and others, while the expanding Boko Haram insurgency is killing hundreds of people in cities and villages across the north and centre of the country. An estimated 12,000 people have died in the five-year insurgency so far.

Nigeria has the resources to beat Boko Haram if it was determined to do so. But most of its staggering oil wealth – up to $70-billion (U.S.) annually – is held by a small politically connected elite, who remain insulated from Boko Haram's terror tactics and seem almost indifferent to the war.

Nigeria has lost about $400-billion in oil revenue as a result of corruption since 1960, according to former World Bank vice-president Obiageli Ezekwesili, a leader of the protest campaign to bring back the kidnapped schoolgirls. A further $20-billion in oil money has disappeared from Nigeria's treasury in the past two years, former central bank governor Lamido Sanusi has charged.

Porsches and bubbly

The economic inequality in Nigeria is among the most extreme in the world – and growing worse. Despite its rising oil wealth, the percentage of Nigerians living in absolute poverty (earning less than a dollar a day) has increased to 61 per cent over the past decade, compared with 55 per cent in 2004. Yet at the same time, Nigeria has nearly 16,000 millionaires, and that number has jumped by 44 per cent over the past six years.

Much of the wealth is concentrated in Nigeria's biggest city, Lagos, where the northern rebellion feels like a remote rumour. At the upscale Palms shopping mall in a Lagos suburb, security is lax. The Boko Haram insurgency is far from people's minds. "We're not feeling the impact," says Edewor Alexander Iniovosa, a 25-year-old employee at the mall. "We believe we are safe here."

Lagos is a microcosm of the social dysfunction that plagues Nigeria and feeds the insurgency. It is one of Africa's biggest and most overcrowded cities, with vast slums, bad traffic jams, daily electricity shortages and eroding infrastructure. To escape those pressures, the richest residents are moving into their own privatized suburbs, where they need never leave.

On Victoria Island, one of the city's most exclusive districts, you can buy a Porsche sports car for $220,000 at a newly opened luxury-car dealership, or a bottle of Bollinger champagne for $115 at a supermarket for the rich. Thanks to the lifestyles of its elite, Nigeria's consumption of French bubbly is soaring at the second-fastest rate in the world, a research company recently found.

The main beach of Victoria Island, once a popular haunt for ordinary Nigerians, is now virtually inaccessible. It has been swallowed up by a 10-square-kilometre city, called Eko Atlantic, currently being constructed on land reclaimed from the ocean. Its luxury apartments and skyscrapers will house 250,000 residents and 150,000 workers, and its wide boulevards and marinas will become a playground for luxury sedans and yachts.

Most significantly, it will all be privately controlled: Everything from its electricity and drinking water to its transit systems and telecommunications will be privatized and operated independently from the decrepit public infrastructure. It will allow the rich to abandon Lagos, retreat from the poor and segregate themselves in their own self-contained enclave.

At its glitzy sales office, a showroom features a huge scale map of the planned city, which the developer calls "a new lifestyle concept" and "a masterpiece of urban planning." Its brochures promise "beautiful tree-lined streets and stunning ocean views" for those who can afford it.

Construction cranes and bulldozers are already visible across the reclaimed land, and the first residential tower is due to open in 2016. "This is the new face of Africa," says Okon David Major, a former merchant-marine seafarer who makes a living as a guide to the handful of visitors in the remaining fragments of the beach.

Asked who can afford to live in Eko Atlantic, he laughs. "The government functionaries who stole our money," he replies. "The tourists used to come here, but now the government has confiscated everything and they use it to make money. Every head of state will have their own building, and they'll chase away the poor people."

Living in places like Victoria Island and shopping at the boutiques of the Palms mall, Nigeria's rich and powerful can ignore the Boko Haram bombs and the kidnapped schoolgirls. State governors, who hold much of the power in Nigeria's federal system, fly to their regions in private jets.

"The political class, with a few distinguished exceptions, has long been in a state of smugness, complacency and collusion," Nigerian novelist and poet Ben Okri wrote in a recent commentary.

"In a country rich with oil revenues, where billions of pounds disappear from the national coffers with no one held to account, where going into politics is synonymous with acquiring vast and sudden wealth, where slums breed in larger numbers every day … it is not surprising that violent sects grow from such a festering condition."

Cost of corruption

While the "Bring Back Our Girls" hashtag campaign has thrust Boko Haram into the global spotlight, too many Nigerian officials have been apathetic or resentful of the attention.

Despite a national security budget of about $6.5-billion annually, the insurgency has actually increased in its scope and deadliness in recent months. Boko Haram has continued to kidnap and kill villagers within a few kilometres of the Chibok site, while the army does little to protect them.

In response to the global controversy over the kidnapped girls, pro-government loyalists and security forces have blamed the local campaigners: breaking up their daily rallies in Abuja, trying to ban their protests and confiscating truckloads of the newspapers that have embarrassed the government with their coverage of the issue.

Some influential leaders, including the wife of President Goodluck Jonathan, have even claimed that the kidnapping was a fabricated ruse to discredit the government.

Nigeria's attempts to tackle the Boko Haram crisis has been hampered by its corrupt military, weakened by internal feuding, mutinies, defections and a lack of basic weaponry. Nigeria spent millions of dollars to buy Israeli surveillance drones for its army in 2006, but it didn't bother to maintain them, so they could not be used to search for the kidnapped schoolgirls. Even the money for basic military salaries is often stolen by commanders and politicians.

"The soldiers have exceedingly low morale," said Clement Nwankwo, a political analyst who directs the Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre in Abuja.

"The military budget rises, but a lot of it is creamed off by political leaders. Soldiers are forced to go to war without adequate preparation and a lot of them are killed. The leaders and their own officers are not providing the military hardware they need. These soldiers are afraid of engaging with the insurgents. When you know your opponent has far more sophisticated equipment, you don't want to simply line yourself up to be shot and killed."

The insurgency cannot be solved as long as the corruption and inequality continue, Mr. Nwankwo said. "I don't think we should be called a failed state, but we're in danger of it. Unless the government puts a halt to its levels of corruption and incompetence, my sense is that we're on that path."

The Pentagon has a similar assessment of Nigeria's military weaknesses. In testimony to a U.S. Senate committee last month, the Defence Department's African Affairs director Alice Friend said the Pentagon "has been deeply concerned for some time by how much the government of Nigeria has struggled to keep pace with Boko Haram's growing capabilities."

Widespread corruption in Nigeria is creating a "more permissive operating environment" for Boko Haram, she testified.

"The long-term solution … requires Nigeria's national political leaders to give serious and sustained attention to the systemic problems of corruption, the lack of effective and equitable governance and the country's uneven social and economic development."

Outgunned and losing the war, Nigeria's military has responded to Boko Haram with horrific abuses, including thousands of arbitrary arrests and massacres of hundreds of unarmed civilians, according to well-documented reports by human-rights groups. This, too, has played into Boko Haram's hands by fomenting anger and bringing revenge-seeking recruits into its armed gangs.

Living in fear

At the heart of Nigerian political power, Abuja's verdant and carefully groomed city centre is an oasis of affluence where government ministries have their towering headquarters. But on the city's impoverished outskirts, in a slum called Nyanya, the insurgents have twice exploded bombs at the same spot, audaciously exposing the powerlessness of the authorities.

Nyanya is a haphazard warren of alleys and small houses, with fires burning in the courtyards and chickens running through the dusty streets. People cook and wash outside, while hawkers sell fruit and other small goods.

"People are still fearing the bombs," says Rose Ayoka, 52, who runs a small micro-savings business in the slum. "Many people have run away. My customers are escaping. People aren't coming here to buy or sell. Because of Boko Haram, the people in Nyanya are suffering."

On a recent afternoon, units of police and soldiers were patrolling the slum and guarding the bombing site. But their roadblocks tend to harass the poor rather than the rich. "When you reach the checkpoint, they look at you, and if you look very well-dressed, they tell you to go ahead," said Mr. Nwankwo, the political analyst. "If you're scruffy, they pull you aside and open your boot."

The debris from the bombings is a poignant reminder of who pays the price for Boko Haram's attacks. The small pushcarts and wheelbarrows of the street hawkers and labourers are still visible near the scene of the explosions, their tin cans and plastic bottles and rice bags melted or burned.

Titus Emeka Okwor, 50, has been selling cheap engine oil in soft-drink bottles to passing motorists on Nyanya's main road for the past 10 years. When the first bomb hit, the explosion was so loud it damaged his hearing, and he abandoned the site for weeks. On his first day back, he pulls out a small crumpled bill from his pocket – worth about 60 cents. It's his only revenue from the entire day and not enough to support his wife and five children.

"I was afraid to come back here," he says. "Mostly I'm just sitting here alone and nobody is coming here. No cars are stopping any more because of the situation."

Hundreds of kilometres to the south, in an affluent suburb of Lagos, the reports about the bombings and kidnappings are largely ignored. In an upscale restaurant, a group of Nigerian corporate executives casually watch the latest Boko Haram news on television.

"It's crazy," they say, shaking their heads idly. "It's insane."

Then they go back to their chatter about business and food and their complaints about the slow service. The brutal rebellion has been forgotten again.

Nigeria by the numbers

61: Percentage of Nigerians who earn less than one dollar a day in 2014

55: Percentage of Nigerians who earn less than one dollar a day in 2004

16,000: Number of millionaires in Nigeria

44: Percentage increase in the number of millionaires in the past six years

12,000: Estimated number of people killed in five years of the Boko Haram insurgency

173.6 million: Estimated population of Nigeria in 2014

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