The Obama administration says Islamic militants in northern Nigeria are capitalizing on popular discontent with the government, and officials need to tackle economic problems if they are to stop the violence. An Easter Sunday bombing thought to have been carried out by Boko Haram killed at least 36 people.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson says the threat from Boko Haram grows as Nigeria's standard of living declines.
Desperation in northern states
In a country where nearly 100 million people live on less than one dollar a day, Carson says that desperation is especially felt in northern states where Muslims are the majority and the group is most active.
"Nigerians are hungry for progress and improvement in their lives, but northern Nigerians feel this need most acutely," he said. "Life in Nigeria may be tough for many, but life in the north is grim for almost all."
The United Nations says poverty in Nigeria's 12 most-northern states is nearly twice the rate of the rest of the country. Northern children are more likely to be malnourished and illiterate.
"Public opinion polls and news reports suggest there is a strong sentiment throughout the country - but especially in the north - that government is not on the side of the people and their poverty is a result of government neglect, corruption, and abuse," he said.
Carson says that is a popular narrative ripe for insurgents to hijack for their own purposes.
"Although Boko Haram is reviled throughout Nigeria and offers no practical solutions to the country's problems, a growing minority of certain northern ethnic groups, however, regard them favorably," he said. "Boko Haram capitalizes on popular frustrations with the nation's leaders."
Boko Haram says it is fighting for a separate nation under Sharia law and recognizes neither Nigeria's constitution nor last year's election of President Goodluck Jonathan.
Human Rights Watch says Boko Haram has killed more than 1,000 people since it re-emerged following the death of its leader in police custody in 2009. Carson says it is a far harder problem to tackle now because it is no longer one group controlled by a single charismatic leader.
Carson told Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies that Boko Haram is now both a larger group focused on discrediting Nigeria's government and a smaller, increasingly sophisticated and lethal group with a broader anti-Western Jihadist agenda and links to al-Qaida.
Carson says complicating the situation further is the tendency of some Nigerian officials to blame Boko Haram for all bank robberies and local vendettas in the north when some are clearly the work of common criminals and political thugs.
Countering Boko Haram
Carson says President Jonathan's government needs a new social compact with northern citizens, local non-governmental organizations, civil society, and religious leaders. He says Abuja needs an economic recovery strategy that compliments its security strategy.
"Northern populations are currently trapped between violent extremists on the one hand and heavy-handed government responses on the other. They need to know that their president is going to go to extraordinary lengths to fix their problems," he said.
The Jonathan government has struggled to put a stop to attacks, with joint military task forces accused by some local leaders of attacking civilians. Attempts at indirect peace talks with Boko Haram collapsed in March.