Nigeria's prosperity, terror problems in world's spotlight

As the world's top economists gather in Nigeria's capital of Abuja, the focus is suddenly not on the oil-rich nation's booming economy, but its bloody battle with the Islamic terror group Boko Haram.

The World Economic Forum on Africa is slated to begin on Wednesday in the Nigerian capital, where global finance bigwigs will no doubt toast the nation's new status as Africa's top economy. But the three-day session comes as Boko Haram is garnering international headlines with the ongoing kidnappings of schoolgirls and grim taunting of the government of President Goodluck Jonathan.

“I don’t put too much stock in Nigeria becoming the largest economy in Africa,” Rona Peligal, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Africa Division, told “I think this episode, if anything, shows that Nigeria, while large and productive, also has some very troubling governance problems to contend with while being an economic powerhouse.”

The Jonathan administration's apparent bungling of the kidnappings, only the latest in a long series of atrocities committed by Boko Haram, runs counter to the image of competence Nigeria desperately seeks to portray to the international community. Although Jonathan has repeatedly vowed to stamp out the vicious jihadist group, a video of its leader gloating over the kidnapping of hundreds of Christian girls he vowed would be sold into slavery outraged the international community and likely embarrassed the regime in Abuja.

“[It] created a credibility problem when it claimed that most of the girls had been rescued and then retracting the statement after the school’s principal and the parents refuted the claim," she said. “The outrage against the government increased when parents who had embarked on a self-help rescue mission to Sambisa forest with the help of local hunters, had to turn back out of fear that Boko Haram would kill not only them but also their daughters.”

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    Last month, suspected Boko Haram fighters planted a bomb that killed 75 people in an Abuja suburb, prompting fears that the nation could not guarantee the safety of some 1,000 delegates slated to attend the forum, including many heads of state. The attack prompted Minister of National Planning Ambassador Bashir Yuguda to rush to assure the international community that Nigeria is safe.

    “Security will be beefed up," Yaguda told Voice of America. "The security of the delegates coming -- Nigeria is guaranteeing their security. We will do the best we can as a nation to do that because it’s our responsibility to protect the lives of the delegates that are coming.”

    But the kidnappings have given the impression the country, where an estimated 1,500 people have been killed in fighting between Boko Haram and Christians this year alone, is becoming less safe. Three states in Nigeria’s northeast have been under emergency rule for almost a year, as Jonathan battled the terror group's threat to the country’s sovereignty.

    Amid the bloodshed, there is an economic story to tell. Nigeria's economy is among the fastest-growing in the world, with gross domestic product rising at more than 7 percent per year. The per capita GDP has nearly tripled since 2000, and a Citigroup report published two years ago predicted the economy will be the world's fastest-growing between 2010–2050. Although Nigeria is the world's eighth-largest exporter of oil, its economy is diverse. Agriculture, minerals, gold, coal, telecommunications and banking have all grown rapidly in recent years.

    But the prosperity is not center stage in Abuja, after Boko Haram's latest acts of brutality. And humanitarian groups say the group has the potential for destabilizing the new economic engine of Africa.

    “Nigerian could potentially go the way of Syria, civil war between a weak government and emboldened terrorists,” said David Curry, president of Open Doors USA, a Christian advocacy group. “Instability is growing because of the failure of western governments, including the US government, to forcefully identify the clear and present danger Boko Haram is to a peaceful Nigeria.”