WASHINGTON (AFP) – The United States said Thursday it wanted to step up development assistance to Nigeria’s restive Muslim-majority north as it urged the Abuja government to address grievances underlying violence.
Johnnie Carson, the assistant secretary of state for Africa, confirmed that the United States had approached Nigeria to open a consulate in the flashpoint city of Kano, where coordinated attacks two months ago killed 185 people.
A US consulate in Kano would “give us a presence in the north diplomatically but it would also give us an opportunity to expand our development assistance activities into the north,” Carson told the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee.
Carson said the United States hopes to focus on education and other social programs in the North. He said Nigeria was strategically critical, as the continent’s most populous nation “can be a powerful force for promoting stability and prosperity all over Africa.”
Nearly daily violence by the Islamist-oriented group Boko Haram has claimed more than 1,000 lives since mid-2009, according to AFP and rights groups, with the January 20 anti-police bombings and shootings among the most brazen.
Carson, while voicing concern about Boko Haram, said that Nigeria’s federal government needed to address “the underlying political and socio-economic problems in the north” to prevent extremism.
“The government must also promote respect for human rights by its security forces, whose heavy-handed tactics and extra-judicial killings reinforce the belief that Abuja is insensitive to the concerns of the north,” he said.
“The appointment of credible northerners to lead the government response to northern grievances would be an important and tangible step toward reversing that perception,” Carson said.
Carson’s views were echoed by senators, who praised President Goodluck Jonathan for efforts to open up the Nigerian economy but said that he needed to improve governance in the less prosperous north.
“It’s clear in my view that Nigeria plays a critical role and there’s more that could be done by President Jonathan to encourage meaningful reform to root out endemic corruption and encourage transparency,” said Senator Chris Coons, who heads the Foreign Relations subcommittee on Africa.
Some US pundits and lawmakers have called for the State Department to designate Boko Haram as a terrorist group, which would trigger government-wide US efforts to isolate the group and cut off its finances.
Carson said that the State Department took Boko Haram’s potential threat to the United States “very seriously” but indicated that he opposed a terrorist designation.
Carson said that despite “reports of episodic contact” between Boko Haram and Al-Qaeda, the Nigerian group was not “monolithic.” Carson also dismissed assessments that religion was the primary driver of the violence.
“As Boko Haram is focused primarily on local Nigerian issues and actors, they respond principally to political and security developments within Nigeria,” Carson said.
Boko Haram took responsibility for Christmas Day bomb attacks that killed nearly 50 people, mostly in churches, as well as last August’s bombing of the UN headquarters in Abuja that killed 25.
After the Abuja attack, lawmakers on the House Homeland Security Committee urged greater attention to Boko Haram, warning of parallels to Pakistan and Yemen where they said the United States was slow to zero in on Al-Qaeda-linked groups.
The United States maintains an embassy in Abuja and a consulate in Nigeria’s largest city Lagos.
In a new book, former senator Russ Feingold, Coons’ predecessor as head of the Africa subcommittee, faulted the lack of US involvement in northern Nigeria and said that a US diplomat he met there spoke to him largely about where to buy steak.