Is #BringBackOurGirls a Band-Aid solution for Nigeria?
Davis Trumble, of Washington, D.C., protests against the abduction of over 200 girls by the terrorist group Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, at a rally and demonstration in front of the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Nigeria on May 6, 2014 in Washington, D.C.
STUTTGART, Germany — It’s been a month since about 275 girls were kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram, which has brought unprecedented attention to the little known Nigerian terrorist outfit and sparked an international movement for action to ensure the safe return of the girls.
Everyone from First Lady Michelle Obama and heads of state to rappers and actors and even Pope Francis have joined the “bring back our girls” movement hashtagged on Twitter.
Some experts, however, say the attention could bring unexpected consequences if pressure for a more robust international response continues to build.
Already, some hawkish U.S. lawmakers in Congress have used the crisis to attack the Obama administration for being soft on terror in northern Nigeria, raising the specter of a push to intensify U.S. military support in the region.
That, analysts say, is not so simple.
“What this group does is horrific, so of course there is this outrage and pressure to stop it now. But the violence has been going on for several years. It’s not going to be a quick fix, unfortunately,” said Elizabeth Donnelly, an expert on Nigeria at the London-based Chatham House think tank. “The effort to find these girls is important and good, but handling Boko Haram is something different.”
John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria and regional expert at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, said the U.S. should resist pressure to do more than the type of assistance already offered: intelligence analysis and hostage negotiation strategies.
“I’m picking up on Capitol Hill that there is indeed a desire for a more muscular response, but just how much public support do you think there is for long-term involvement in yet another predominantly Muslim area?” Campbell said. “Sure, help rescue the girls, but beyond that, support and interests dissolve.”
Boko Haram, founded more than a decade ago, seeks to establish a fundamentalist Islamic state ruled by sharia law. The intensity of its attacks has increased significantly since 2011, when large quantities of Libyan government weapons became available across the region as a result of the the collapse of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime.
Last week, the White House announced it was dispatching a small team of U.S. advisers to Nigeria, which includes about 10 military personnel, to provide assistance aimed at pinpointing the girls’ whereabouts. The move came after an outcry within Nigeria over its own government’s failures to find the girls and their captors.
The U.S. move prompted calls for a more muscular response, with some lawmakers urging the U.S. military to get more deeply involved in the efforts against Boko Haram by stepping up support for the Nigerian security services.
“It is clear that a piecemeal approach to Boko Haram, with limited U.S. military involvement, has been ineffective to date,” Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, stated in a letter last week to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry.
“A more aggressive U.S. commitment against al-Qaeda affiliated Boko Haram is overdue,” Royce said.
But experts argue that a closer alliance with the Nigerian military would mean aligning with a force notorious for brutalizing the Muslim population in northern Nigeria, the very place the girls were abducted. While Boko Haram — which stands for “western education is evil” — is loathed by the population for its brutality, so is the Nigerian army, according to experts.
Also, greater U.S. involvement in countering Boko Haram on the ground could have unintended consequences, Donnelly said. “What you do not want to do is internationalize this group.”
Although U.S. military officials have raised concerns about Boko Haram collaborating with other al-Qaida affiliated terror groups, the group has proven to be a locally oriented extremist group rather than a jihadist movement operating far beyond its borders, Campbell said.
Much of the tension in Nigeria is rooted in political conflict between the impoverished Muslim north and oil-rich Christian south.
While there is speculation that Boko Haram’s abduction of the girls has alienated it from other insurgent groups, putting a western face on intervention efforts could boost Boko Haram’s standing in jihadist circles.
“Plenty of northern Nigerians think western education is evil, but they aren’t violent about it,” Campbell said. “If you have a visible western presence, you set up a magnet for Islamic radicals all over the place. In effect you internationalize it.”
For now, U.S. assistance in the search for the missing girls appears limited to advisory efforts at the U.S. Embassy in Abuja.
The long-term solutions to the challenges in Nigeria center on solving the political disputes between south and north, where there is a long history of grievances, analysts say. Rule of law and encouraging the reform of Nigerian security services also is key.
If the United States can help the Nigerian government reign in the excesses of its soldiers, citizens might be more willing to share vital information with investigators and troops, according to Bronwyn Bruton, deputy director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council.
“But that is an effort that will take months or years, not days, to bear fruit,” Bruton wrote in a recent essay on the challenges of dealing with Boko Haram.