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Victims of a blast lie on the ground as fire and smoke rise at a bus park in Abuja, Nigeria, on April 14, 2014.


Africa's biggest and wealthiest country is being torn apart by a violent insurgency. Its government has repeatedly failed to control the threat, and its deadly revenge attacks by murderous soldiers are turning the crisis into a far worse disaster.

This is the deteriorating situation in Nigeria, newly crowned as Africa's richest country (and the 26th biggest economy in the world) after a revision of its economic data this month. With its oil wealth and the biggest population on the continent, Nigeria should be capitalizing on Africa's economic boom. Instead its future is in jeopardy.

The insurgency took another lethal twist this week when an explosion killed 75 people and injured 141 at a bus station in Abuja, the Nigerian capital. The attack was blamed on Boko Haram, the militant Islamist group that has been fighting Nigeria's government for four years in a war that has killed more than 4,000 people – including an estimated 2,000 people in the past six months alone.

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In another horrifying episode a day later, gunmen killed two guards at a school in northeastern Nigeria and then abducted about 100 female pupils. Boko Haram was again suspected of carrying out the attack. Its wave of terrorist attacks has increasingly targeted innocent people in school classrooms, businesses, mosques, churches, villages and vaccination campaigns.

Next month, foreign investors from around the world will descend on Abuja for the "African Davos" – an annual meeting of the World Economic Forum where the continent's leaders pitch for business. Nigeria wants to use the WEF summit to showcase its newly recognized strength as Africa's biggest economy, but instead the spotlight will be on the security threat.

More than 6,000 police and soldiers will be deployed to protect the WEF meeting from May 7 to 9. The military muscle might prevent a terrorist attack, but it will remind investors that the insurgency has become a severe threat to Nigeria's vast potential.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, visiting the site of the Abuja bombing on Monday, declared confidently that the Boko Haram threat is "temporary." But this kind of political bluster has been repeatedly proven wrong in the past four years, and Mr. Jonathan's own government is one of the main reasons for the escalating crisis.

Last year, Mr. Jonathan declared a state of emergency in Nigeria's northeastern states, and he ordered thousands of troops on a military offensive against Boko Haram. But despite occasional secret peace negotiations and promises of "hearts-and-minds" tactics to draw people away from the radical group with education and counseling, Nigeria's response to the insurgency has been primarily a brutal military response – a recipe for failure.

At every step of the crisis, the heavy-handed tactics of the Nigerian security forces have fueled more revenge attacks and generated more of the anger and alienation that attracts recruits to Boko Haram. The security forces themselves, often used by Nigerian politicians for their own narrow interests and a pretext to divert money from the security budget, are a highly visible sign of the corruption that has helped trigger the uprising.

In the latest example of lethal overreaction, Nigerian soldiers are believed to have executed more than 600 people – mostly unarmed detainees – in the northern city of Maiduguri after insurgents had raided a military barracks and freed hundreds of detainees.

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Many witnesses told Amnesty International what happened in various districts of the city. "My neighbours and I saw the soldiers take the men to a place called 'no-man's land' behind the University of Maiduguri," one witness told Amnesty. "We watched as the soldiers opened fire, killing all 56. They were killed in front of us. All of them."

In another neighbourhood, more than 190 people were executed, including many who were too frail to run. It has become a cycle of violence, reprisals and more violence. "The scale of atrocities carried out by Boko Haram is truly shocking, creating a climate of fear and insecurity, but this cannot be used to justify the brutality of the response that is clearly being meted out by the Nigerian security forces," Amnesty said in a statement.

A new analysis by the International Crisis Group – an independent think tank – says the insurgency cannot be defeated if the government fails to tackle the injustices that fuel it. "The government's response is largely military, and political will to do more than that appears entirely lacking," the ICG report said.

It called on Mr. Jonathan's government to end the impunity that has allowed soldiers and police to kill freely. It said the government must halt the "heavy-handed military and police methods that risk pushing yet more restless, jobless and frustrated youths into violence and extremism."

Unless there is radical reform of Nigeria's political culture to reduce the corruption and impunity that feed the discontent and alienation of Boko Haram's recruits, the insurgency will continue to destabilize large parts of Nigeria, the report said.

The stakes are high. The insurgency is already threatening to spill over into neighboring Cameroon and Niger. And with Nigeria facing a crucial national election next February, the violence could damage the legitimacy of Nigeria's elected leaders.

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Some electoral officials are already worried that the insurgency could make it difficult to conduct voting in large parts of northeastern Nigeria in February. This, in turn, would spark suspicions that Mr. Jonathan is unfairly trying to suppress votes in regions where his opponents are strong.

If voting is not held in some regions, the entire election could be challenged in court and the opposition could refuse to accept the results, as the ICG's report warns.

The result, it says, could be political chaos in Nigeria. It would be the nightmare scenario for Africa's new economic leader.

Follow me on Twitter: @geoffreyyork

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