What Boko Haram Tells Us About Nigeria and why it’s so Difficult to Help

The kidnapping of more than 250 high school girls in northeast Nigeria has catapulted the terrorist group Boko Haram into the international spotlight. It has also raised uncomfortable questions for the Nigerian authorities, which have been condemned for their slow response to the crisis. The girls were taken from their school in Borno state on April 14, yet almost three weeks passed before President Goodluck Jonathan spoke in public about efforts to find them. The police did not think of requesting photographs of the missing until a similar length of time had elapsed and there is still confusion over the basic details of what happened, including exactly how many hostages were taken. Public fury about this laggardly response galvanized Nigerian civil society in a way not seen since early 2012, when the government’s removal of fuel subsidies triggered street protests. It sparked an energetic social media campaign organized around the twitter hashtag BringBackOurGirls. And it led to a frenzy of mainstream media coverage that heaped enormous pressure on Nigeria and its international partners to do something—anything—to secure the safe return of the hostages.

The kidnapping has garnered more publicity for Boko Haram than all its many other atrocities combined.  The horror of the girls’ plight was underlined by the gleeful admission, in a video message by the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau that he intended to “sell” the girls into slavery. The ongoing crisis is a public relations coup for Boko Haram and gives it a strong hand in any negotiations for their release.

For Boko Haram, the attack marks the latest stage in its steady evolution from a radical but largely non-violent Islamist sect rejecting the secular authority of the state to one of the most ruthless and ambitious terrorist groups on the African continent. The death in 2009 of its former leader, Mohammed Yusuf, at the hands of the Nigerian security services was a turning point. The group that re-emerged under Shekau a year later was driven by a desire for vengeance in addition to its vague ambitions of toppling the corrupt Nigerian state in favor of an Islamic caliphate. It was also equipped with the skills and resources to launch sophisticated attacks on both hard and soft targets, including the UN compound in the capital, Abuja; the national police headquarters, schools, churches, military barracks, and defenseless villages. The group has splintered into multiple loosely controlled, geographically dispersed factions, making the task of understanding its motives, operations, and the extent of its external links all the more difficult.

Mounting an effective response to Boko Haram will be extremely difficult. The primary responsibility for doing so lies with a Nigerian government that has been slow to comprehend the threat and has viewed the problem almost entirely through the narrow lens of security. The national security budget has increased tenfold since 2010, the national security apparatus has been overhauled, service chiefs replaced, new anti-terrorism legislation passed, and new military hardware deployed, including Nigeria’s first unmanned aerial vehicle. In addition, a state of emergency imposed on the three worst-affected states of Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa since May 2013, gives the military the authority to take all necessary actions to tackle the terrorists. Its efforts have been supplemented by civilian vigilantes, organized into a so-called Civilian Joint Task Force.  While these initiatives have succeeded in pushing Boko Haram back from urban areas, they have not impaired its ability to mount large-scale attacks, apparently at will. More than 1,500 civilians were killed in the first three months of 2014 alone.  Heavy-handed operations by the security forces have resulted in indiscriminate attacks on civilians and serious violations of human rights. In the process they have alienated the local population and choked off potentially vital sources of human intelligence. Persistent accusations of collusion between poorly paid, under-equipped soldiers and members of Boko Haram have dented morale and further hampered progress.

Meanwhile, an out of touch political elite in Abuja has appeared largely uninterested in the fate of the north-east beyond its capacity to overshadow its hosting of the World Economic Forum for Africa and embarrass Nigeria in the eyes of the international community. The crisis has been exploited by politicians from the two main parties who are already in campaign mode ahead of national elections next February. The opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) has accused the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) of doing little to find the girls because the north-east is an APC stronghold. In its view, the PDP has an interest in keeping the region unstable because it will be easier to manipulate an election conducted in conditions of rampant insecurity or even postpone it altogether. The PDP has accused the APC of using the girls’ plight to make the president look bad. Some, including the First Lady herself, have even appeared to suggest that the entire kidnapping was fabricated for the sole purpose of frustrating President Jonathan’s ambitions to stand for another term in office.  The leadership of some countries, when confronted with a national crisis, put their differences aside and tackle it together.  Not Nigeria.

All of these dynamics combine to make Nigeria a problematic partner for the United States and limit the options for meaningful cooperation in searching for the missing girls and tackling the broader terrorist threat posed by Boko Haram. This reality must be kept in mind amid the current, intense pressure for the United States to take on more responsibility for rescuing the girls. In fact, the United States and Nigeria have a fairly long history of security cooperation but it is limited in scope, confined to areas including peacekeeping training, non-lethal military assistance, counter-terrorism advice, and building up the capacity of the Nigerians in disaster preparedness and response.

There are several reasons for this mutual restraint. As recent events demonstrate, Nigeria does not necessarily want outside help. President Jonathan held off for more than three weeks before asking the United States for assistance in searching for the kidnapped girls. National pride is at stake; so too is a desire to keep outside scrutiny to a minimum. For several years, the United States has been offering to help Nigeria deal with massive oil theft in the Niger Delta, only to be repeatedly rebuffed, perhaps out of fear that the criminal activities of senior military and civilian officials might be exposed.  

In addition, there are legal and reputational risks for the United States in associating too closely with military and police forces that has been tarnished by corruption and abuse scandals. The Leahy Law prohibits the Departments of Defense and State from providing military assistance to foreign military units that violate human rights with impunity. This greatly limits U.S security cooperation with Nigeria, and rightly so. One potential way forward, albeit an expensive one, is to set up entirely new units.  Indeed, this is one of the tasks being undertaken with the standup of a new Nigerian Army Special Operations Command, established in January with U.S. support.

The United States must weigh up the benefits of helping the Nigerians tackle their terrorism threat with the risks that its involvement will place it in the line of fire of a group which to date has focused on domestic grievances and has not posed a serious threat to Western security interests. This debate directly plays into the controversy over whether the United States was too slow to designate Boko Haram a foreign terrorist organization, a step that was resisted by the State Department until last year.  Proponents of an earlier FTO designation have yet to clearly explain how it would have made a practical difference in tackling the group, beyond making a public but essentially symbolic stand against Boko Haram.

Instead, meaningful efforts to tackling Boko Haram are better directed at impressing upon the Nigerian authorities the need to come up with a broader, long-term strategy to deal with terrorism that goes beyond security and includes genuine efforts to address some of its root causes, which include the economic deprivation and underdevelopment of swathes of the northeast.

To its credit, the Nigerian government is making small steps in the right direction. The National Security Advisor Sambo Dasuki outlined the framework of a more holistic approach in March, which included not only a tough security response but measures to deradicalize convicted terrorists, strengthen what he called “family, cultural, religious, and national values;” communicate these values more clearly to the public, and revitalize the economy in the six northeastern states. Turning this strategy into a reality will require a long term effort to which the U.S. can lend its support.

Ultimately, the success or failure of this strategy will come down to a question of political will.  Does Nigeria’s ruling elite care enough about its own population? Particularly its distant, downtrodden, marginalized citizens in Boko Haram’s northeastern heartland?  To date, much of the political class in Abuja has not demonstrated that it is sufficiently invested in the task of addressing people’s grievances and meeting their basic needs for jobs, education, and public services. Until it starts addressing these fundamentals, Boko Haram and groups like it will continue to exploit public hopelessness and lead it in violent directions.

Richard Downie is deputy director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Richard Downie