07 February 2017

Student Voices: Private sector’s role in defeating Boko Haram

Boko Haram's attempts to create an Islamic state in northeast Nigeria have displaced over 2 million people and cost thousands of lives. With the government struggling to impose a military solution, Chizitera Beverley Njoku (MDev 2017) argues that the private sector must take the lead in ending the conflict.

It is undeniable that the private sector has an important and urgent role to play in the Boko Haram conflict, given tts capacity to provide employment opportunities, develop skills, improve local infrastructure and help revitalise Nigeria’s North East. In 2014 alone the private sector created approximately 91% of jobs in the country. It has often been repeated that the lack of employment opportunities and high rate of poverty were amongst the main reasons for the rise of the Boko Haram group. Across the world, businesses have played a huge role in places like Kosovo and Sierra Leone in helping the country to get back on its feet. The North-east is undoubtedly a place marred by conflict but more importantly it is a place of great potential. Companies based in Nigeria should wait no longer to play their part; they should quickly decide how they want history to judge them.

The private sector will not want to invest in a conflict area for solely noble reasons. There must understandably, be some financial incentive for them. Those eager to invest in the North-east will be able to gain from first mover advantage. They will be able to establish a presence and build a loyal consumer base. They will also be able to profit from the natural resources that states such as Borno can offer. These include clay, potash, salt, iron ore and uranium, to name a few. More importantly, however is that companies that invest in the North-east now are very likely to receive a substantial amount of support from the federal government. The government will support any effort to reduce the number of those joining Boko Haram and as a result reduces the number of lives lost. Secondly, an increase in private sector involvement will indicate to the world that the country is now more stable. This will help to increase foreign direct investment and will help bolster the failing economy.

However, as corporations get involved in the North-east they must take care to be sensitive and attentive to the needs of the local population. To ensure that the local population is not exploited and marginalised by the private sector, there needs to be investment in the capacity of the local people. Organisations such as Unilever, Zenith Bank and British American Tobacco have made efforts to improve the capacity of the local populations in certain parts of Nigeria: similar efforts must now be made in the North-east. There should be a focus on providing vocational training, life skills, internships, essential accounting and bookkeeping courses, and so forth. Providing these courses and training schemes to the local population may be costly in the short run, but as the local populations gain necessary skills, companies in the long run will gain returns on their investments via a capable local labour market which they can easily tap into.

While embracing the local population the private sector should make efforts to integrate previously marginalised groups. Women for example have been marginalised in many aspects of life in the North. such as education and land ownership. Yet women play numerous, varied and fundamental roles as peacemakers, facilitators and even perpetuators in the Boko Haram conflict. As a result, it is important that attention is given to them and that their abilities are put to the most profitable use. The private sector, which traditionally has been more flexible and innovative than government partners, must be open-minded and bold.

The government on their part, beyond prioritising kinetic military force, should ensure that they are providing incentives for companies to invest in the North-east,  in the form of tax breaks, subsidies or other measures. This will help reduce the number of operational challenges and uncertainty that businesses face, creating an enabling environment for companies.

A longer, print version of this article appeared on 30 January 2017 in THISDAY, Nigeria's 2nd most popular newspaper.