LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Former U.S. President Bill Clinton warned Monday that the rampant poverty that plagues oil-rich Nigeria — felt most acutely in its Muslim north — is fueling the religious violence now tearing at the nation.
A radical Islamist sect known as Boko Haram claimed Monday it killed 12 soldiers and beheaded three government informants in its bloody wave of sectarian violence against Nigeria's weak central government. While Clinton never named the sect in a speech Monday night in Nigeria's commercial capital Lagos, he admitted he remained "really worried" about the security challenges in Africa's most populous nation.
"You can't just have this level of inequality persist. That's what's fueling all this stuff," said Clinton, who appeared along with Cherie Blair, the wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, at the ThisDay Awards, an annual ceremony hosted by Nigerian newspaper magnate Nduka Obaigbena.
Poverty is endemic in Nigeria, and corruption has siphoned away billions in oil earnings since the country began exporting crude more than 50 years ago. New government statistics released Monday showed that in Nigeria's northwest and northeast, regions besieged by Islamic insurgents, about 75 percent of the people live in poverty.
Analysts say that poverty, despite decades of military rule by leaders from the north, coupled with a lack of formal education has driven the region's exploding youth population toward extremism.
In the last year, Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is sacrilege" in the local Hausa language, has carried out increasingly sophisticated attacks in its campaign to implement strict Islamic law and avenge Muslim killings in Nigeria.
Boko Haram is blamed for killing at least 286 people so far this year, according to an Associated Press count. At least 185 people died in the sect's coordinated assault in January on Kano, the largest city of Nigeria's north.
Those attacks have strained relations between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria, a multiethnic nation of more than 160 million people. Clinton called for Nigerians to embrace their similarities, while also asking the government to speed public works projects such as providing electricity to a nation whose people are long accustomed to running their own generators for power.
"It is almost impossible to cure a problem based on violence with" violence, Clinton said. "You also have to give people something to look forward to when they get up in the morning."
However, Clinton acknowledged Nigeria cannot rule out using military or police force when dealing with the instability. The unease in the country, as well as the threat of possible Boko Haram violence even in Lagos, could be felt as heavily armed soldiers and officers stood guard outside the luxury hotel as he spoke Monday night.
Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.