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Police officers patrol the city of Abuja, Nigeria last month during a protest by the Bring Back Our Girls group, calling for the release of schoolgirls who were kidnapped by Islamist militant group Boko HaramAfolabi Sotunde/Reuters

A few years ago, Soji Adelaja was advising Michigan on how to recover from the decline of its auto industry. Today he's got a much tougher task: Helping Nigeria survive a brutal onslaught from Boko Haram extremists.

Mr. Adelaja, a distinguished U.S. economist, is a key strategist in the Nigerian government's search for a "soft" solution to its Boko Haram rebellion. It's an ambitious attempt to look for economic levers that could choke off the violent insurgency.

Mr. Adelaja, who was born in Lagos but spent 34 years in the United States, has returned to his homeland to help devise what the government calls a "Marshall Plan" to rescue Nigeria's northeast, the Islamist militant stronghold. While the Nigerian military has floundered in its conventional war against the insurgents, the economic plan might have a better chance of succeeding in the long run.

It won't be easy. The economy of northeastern Nigeria has nearly collapsed since the Boko Haram rebellion began in 2009. More than 12 million people live in the regions affected by the insurgency, and 1.5 million need urgent aid, Mr. Adelaja says. By his own estimates, the conflict has destroyed at least half of the economy in the northeast, and perhaps as much as two-thirds.

If the government wants to weaken Boko Haram, Mr. Adelaja believes it must create jobs in the northeast. "Boko Haram recruits people who feel left behind," he said in an interview in his office in Abuja, the national capital.

"It's easier to radicalize a person who doesn't have any connection to any opportunities. Extremists take advantage of it to promote their ideology. In the analysis we've done, that's what we see as the basis for the growing unrest in Africa."

Michigan is very different from Nigeria, but Mr. Adelaja believes his homeland could benefit from his expertise in helping revitalize Michigan's economy. "I realized that the root causes of terrorism can be socio-economic. I thought that perspective – focusing on root causes as a supplementary strategy to traditional security strategy – was important."

Mr. Adelaja, a professor of land policy at Michigan State University, is a former economic development advisor to Michigan's ex-governor Jennifer Granholm, and helped shape the state's efforts to revive its moribund economy after the auto-industry crisis. Now he is an advisor to Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan in the recently created Presidential Initiative for the North East (PINE), which has a budget of more than $12-million this year.

Using money from its own budget and other federal departments and state governments, as well as foreign donors and businesses, PINE aims to provide emergency relief to a million people in northeastern Nigeria over the next 18 months. It would provide jobs in community service or reconstruction projects for 100,000 young people. And it would try to unleash long-term growth from the region's mineral and agricultural resources, its trade links with neighbouring countries, and new economic sectors such as solar and wind energy.

The Nigerian government has been "extremely receptive" to the economic strategy for defeating Boko Haram, and it is "at the forefront" of understanding the links between terrorism and the economy, Mr. Adelaja says.

His own appointment is an example: He has been attached to the office of Nigeria's National Security Advisor – illustrating how economic thinking is now incorporated into the counter-terrorism campaign.

Many observers are skeptical of the plan. "On what basis could it work?" asks Clement Nwankwo, a political analyst who heads the Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre in Abuja. "There is no peace in the northeast. Can any construction company go in there to work?"

Jibrin Ibrahim, a political scientist and activist in Abuja, says the plan's budget is far too small. "I don't think it's a serious initiative. It's a really tiny project. The concept of the presidential initiative is good, but it needs to be well-resourced."

In its own reports, PINE documents the scale of the crisis in the northeast. Some parts of the northeast are among the poorest in the world, and more than 1,000 classrooms have been destroyed by Boko Haram attacks since 2009, it says.

One report describes the former economic heartland of the northeast, Borno state, as "a shadow of its past, plagued with terrorism and insecurity, the migration of skilled workers and entrepreneurs, major shutdown of local businesses, massive unemployment, dilapidated infrastructure … as well as cultural and religious extremism."

Mr. Adelaja admits the huge scale of the challenge. "How do you get into Boko Haram country to begin to offer relief?" he asks. "How do you ensure that the people who really need assistance actually get assistance?"

But he points to Nigeria's recovery from the 1967-70 Biafra war as an example of how a region can rebound. Just as entrepreneurs returned to southeastern Nigeria after the Biafra war, they will return to the northeast, he believes.

"Nigerian resiliency often tends to be ignored. I do believe this thing will be over pretty soon, and people will come back. I'm very optimistic about that."

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