Battling Boko Haram

 /  April 30, 2015, 1:21 p.m.


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The one-year anniversary of the kidnapping of 276 female students from a secular school in Chibok, Nigeria on April 14 was marked by worldwide recognition, rallies, and media attention—but one year later, the international community has failed to take effective action toward their recovery or the escalating humanitarian crisis in the country.

As testimony from escaped girls began to circulate and the #bringbackourgirls campaign raised international awareness last April, the United States pledged its help in searching for the missing girls. In January, the Charlie Hebdo attacks coincided with and diverted media attention from the massacre of as many as two thousand Nigerian civilians in Baga. In February, then president Goodluck Jonathan announced that the tide had turned against Boko Haram. In March, he declared that it would not take more than a month to recapture territories under control of the militant group. And as the country’s government changes hands in an unprecedented democratic election this month, Boko Haram is retreating but by no means defeated, the civilian death toll continues to rise, and the girls remain missing.

The kidnap of the Chibok girls brought international attention to one component of a complex and escalating situation. Estimates put the number of people killed by Boko Haram since 2013 at 6,800; meanwhile, the Nigerian military has been accused of both incompetence and human rights abuses as it seeks to quell the insurgency. Nigeria is plagued by a lack of education, poor infrastructure, and corruption, and the combination of dropping oil prices and the loss of US exports has damaged the economy.

Alongside the economic and military crises is an apparent victory for democracy: incumbent Goodluck Jonathan became the first Nigerian president to peacefully and democratically pass power to his successor. Both Jonathan and the president-elect, Muhammadu Buhari, called on their supporters to avoid violence around the election with remarkable success. Jonathan publicly conceded his defeat to Buhari, while Buhari spoke of his continued respect for the outgoing president.

Jonathan’s defeat was the result of repeated failures in government over the past five years, with the insurgency in the northeast playing a prominent role. In the immediate aftermath of the Chibok kidnappings, Jonathan seemed to underestimate their significance, failing to speak publicly about the event until almost two weeks had passed. His wife’s response to those who had lost their children came across as melodramatic and insincere. As the escape of two groups of Chibok girls, the release of hostage videos, and multiple failed offenses and negotiations kept the event fresh in the public mind, Jonathan’s continued failure damned him in the eyes of the Nigerian people. His refusal of UN military help coincided with a new spat of Boko Haram killings, and the campaign hashtag #bringbackgoodluck2015 intensified negative publicity.

Buhari brings his own heavy baggage. Now a “converted democrat,” he ruled Nigeria as dictator in the 1980s before a coup led by the Supreme Military Council ousted him from power. His years of government control were marked by contradictions that he has since harnessed to his advantage: tyranny alongside a crackdown on corruption, human rights abuses paired with increased discipline in government and military affairs. Focusing attention on his experience in controlling corruption and reforming Nigeria while claiming he will “spare no effort” in tackling Boko Haram has won Buhari the hopes of the Nigerian people. Now, he has asked Nigerians to “forget our old battles and past grievances and forge ahead” toward a more democratic and stable state.

But does Buhari’s election represent a significant shift in the struggle against Boko Haram? At least in terms of stated ideology, Buhari has departed from his predecessor. He announced plans to crack down on corruption and spoke out far more aggressively on the kidnapping of the Chibok girls, stating that he does not know where they are and calling on the government to be honest with its progress. However, Buhari has a full set of inherited problems to tackle. Nigeria is currently rated 136 out of 175 countries in Transparency International’s 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index, which drew Jonathan heavy criticism. Supporters of Buhari argue that the attack on corruption during his previous rule bodes well for his presidency, but it remains to be seen whether the current democratic setup will yield decisive results.

Economically, the United States contributed to growing fiscal instability in Nigeria when it cut off all exports from the country in the wake of increased use of shale oil. Combined with the dropping price of oil, this sudden vacuum has proved problematic for Nigeria and signaled multiple budget cuts, even as China seeks to import from Nigeria and fill the void. The Nigerian army has also faced charges of combined ineptitude and human rights abuses. Soldiers are often under-equipped, sometimes facing opponents with far superior equipment to their own. In a recent report, Amnesty International presented evidence of torture, disappearances, and other human rights abuses by the Nigerian military, combined with a systematic lack of accountability.

Buhari’s promised crackdown seeks to eliminate the majority of these intersecting problems. Decreasing corruption will promote the efficiency and accountability of the military, boost the economy, and encourage other countries to invest in Nigerian development. The high expectations engendered by his campaign rhetoric will be difficult to live up to, however, and a new and harsher attitude may not be enough to win him success.

US intervention in the region has been spotty, partly due to Jonathan’s reaction to aid. In the wake of the Chibok attacks, the United States offered surveillance drones and a team of intelligence experts to help the country tackle the terrorist threat. However, the mistrust of the Nigerian military led the US to withhold aspects of its intelligence information and prevent the sale of attack helicopters from Israel to Nigeria. In December, the Nigerian government refused this effort, ending overt cooperation against Boko Haram. Jonathan stated that it was more helpful for the UN to provide aid for victims, as opposed to direct intervention; a senior scholar on Nigeria, John Campbell, stated that the U.S. had “little leverage” in the country.

These and other attempts at coordination during Jonathan’s term faced a number of persistent issues, preventing any effective use of combined resources. Nigeria under Jonathan was a democratic hope that had failed to reach its promise, tainted with ongoing accusations of widespread corruption and war crimes going uninvestigated and unpunished. US involvement with Nigeria was therefore tacit support of a government with blood on its hands. Corruption posed a more concrete risk to US investment, rendering funding efforts unreliable at best. And the United States is approaching Nigeria under the weight of years of intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Political leaders are unwilling to invest time and manpower in an effort that could worsen relationships in the region, given that US funding in other parts of the Middle East has ultimately proven inadequate.

Buhari’s change in rhetoric signals a shift in the potential of international and particularly US involvement. After presenting himself as the man who will end Boko Haram, Buhari cannot afford to refuse international cooperation. And with the Nigerian economy struggling and the Nigerian army demonstrably inadequate against the threat, outside intervention may well be necessary.

For the United States, failing to work against Boko Haram in Nigeria is not a valid path forward. As the most populous country and biggest economy in Africa—coupled with its newly validated democratic status—Nigeria is crucial to American interests in the region. The instability of Boko Haram jeopardizes peace in the area, especially as it threatens to spread across the border to Cameroon. And the militants have sworn their allegiance to ISIS, joining a group in direct conflict with Western interests in the region. The #bringbackourgirls campaign brought popular attention to the situation in Nigeria and highlighted the humanitarian crisis, which has only escalated since last year.

In a recent report, John Campbell of the Council on Foreign Relations discussed the threat Boko Haram poses to destabilize West Africa and increase religious violence. He identifies the group as a primarily local threat caused by poor government, religious marginalization in the northeast, and poverty, and suggests that the United States encourage Nigeria toward greater respect of human rights and a reformed military culture. He also suggested that the US establish a consulate in the northern city of Kano to promote good relations with Muslim Nigerians.

The establishment of a consulate in Kano is an excellent first step, and while Campbell is correct in identifying broader causes of Boko Haram’s insurgency, pressuring the Nigerian government to end its human rights abuses and destructive military culture will not be enough. A true solution requires a combination of immediate intelligence advising, technological investment, and military training, coupled with long-term efforts toward mitigating Nigeria’s corruption, poverty, and religious divide. The election of Buhari, who hails from the predominantly Muslim northern city of Daura, may be an indication of religious cooperation amongst Nigeria’s civilian population.

Buhari’s election is an unmistakable opportunity for the United States to take a more active role in Nigeria’s struggle against Boko Haram. Although Buhari’s success in upholding his campaign promises remains to be seen, the United States should demonstrate its support of his stated goals and exert pressure to see that they are executed. As a first step, the United States should bring back older offers of military advisors and supplies—under strict conditions that the president take concrete steps against the military’s corruption. Direct military intervention is best left to the combined forces from Nigeria, Chad, and Cameroon working under the African Union, who have recently had dramatic success in countering Boko Haram. The use of drones in searching for the Chibok girls was stymied by Goodluck Jonathan’s refusal to allow permission to fly over the northeast part of the country, but this too could change under Buhari’s administration. The drones will provide valuable surveillance capabilities to a military struggling to match its opponents. While the United States can and should provide short-term aid and support in the country, Nigeria’s success or failure against Boko Haram will ultimately depend on the new president’s commitment to addressing the nation’s long-term problems.

The image featured in this article is courtesy of Chatham House. The original image can be found here.


Ellen Wiese


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