No quick fixes to counter surging Boko Haram
January 16, 2015
The body count continues to grow in Nigeria, where in recent weeks hundreds of people have been slaughtered at the hands of the Islamic militant group Boko Haram.
The latest bloodshed, which has included the burning of an entire village and suicide bombings carried out by school girls, has elicited international condemnation.
But with Islamic extremist attacks in France and the Middle East grabbing headlines, Boko Haram has faded from the international news agenda since the militants kidnapped 200 school girls last April. A viral grassroots push for action in response to that mass kidnapping through the “Bring Back our Girls” social media campaign ultimately led the U.S. to send in military advisers and surveillance drones to assist in an international manhunt for the missing girls.
Nine months after the kidnapping, the girls have not been found and Boko Haram is now on the march, occupying by some estimates as much as 20 percent of Africa’s most populous country. The Nigerian military has been unable to counter the advances of the militant group and in some cases, witnesses have reported soldiers fleeing before the advancing rebels.
Experts warn Boko Haram is now pushing Nigeria — Africa’s largest oil producer — to the brink, threatening both western interests and vulnerable neighboring states. But with political dysfunction in the country and U.S.-Nigeria relations, there are no practical options available to the U.S. and its allies to counter the militants as they continue to gain strength.
“All this has certainly grabbed the attention of the Departments of State and Defense, and I can tell you that because they’re calling me,” said John Campbell, a former ambassador to Nigeria and an expert on the region with the Council on Foreign Relations.
But for the government officials seeking his counsel, the longtime diplomat has few words of encouragement. “I just don’t have an easy answer,” Campbell said.
For now, the U.S. appears committed to maintaining at least a small military advisory presence in Nigeria as part of the effort to locate the 200 kidnapped school girls.
“The number (of advisers) varies on a day by day basis as specialists arrive and depart on certain segments of ongoing projects,” Ben Benson, a U.S. Africa Command spokesman, said in an email. “The U.S. government is still very much engaged in an advisory role to the Nigerian government on the Chibok girl situation.”
While there have been reports that disagreements between the U.S. and Nigerian governments have hindered cooperation — with Nigeria publicly pulling out of a small counter-terrorism training program earlier this month — U.S. officials say they remain committed to the search for the school girls from Chibok.
However, the continuing violence and a resulting refugee crisis — about 1 million Nigerians have been displaced by Boko Haram — pose questions about the future stability of both Nigeria and impoverished neighboring states that could also see an influx of refugees.
“While one should not give up on those poor victims, one needs to take a realistic look at the strategic picture, acknowledge what is achievable given the resources at hand and the conditions in theater, and balance it all in light of the overall stakes,” said J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. “In truth, Boko Haram is a much larger problem than just the fate of the schoolgirls.”
Within the past two weeks, Boko Haram has been on a rampage.
In early January, militants razed at least two villages, killing scores of civilians, according to Amnesty International, which released satellite images on Thursday documenting evidence of village burning.
“These detailed images show devastation of catastrophic proportions in two towns, one of which was almost wiped off the map in the space of four days,” said Daniel Eyre, Nigeria researcher for Amnesty. “It represents a deliberate attack on civilians whose homes, clinics and schools are now burnt out ruins.”
Estimates of the death toll connected to those assaults have been as high as 2,000, but Nigerian military officials have denied those claims, saying about 150 were killed.
The acceleration of the violence raises the question of whether the international community should be doing more to counter Boko Haram, whose goal is to overthrow Nigeria’s secular government and impose a strict form of Shariah law.
There are no simple solutions, experts say. Many of Nigeria’s problems are long-standing and deep-rooted. Northern Nigeria, home to a Muslim majority, has long been disenfranchised by the more powerful and oil rich south, home to a Christian majority. Such factors have contributed to Boko Haram’s rise.
Any long-term solution will have to involve the Nigerian government taking steps to improve conditions for those in the north, Campbell said.
“Clearly Boko Haram has some kind of popular acquiescence and possibly support, so I would argue the way to tackle Boko Haram is not through counter-terrorism but counter insurrection,” he said. “The trouble is, those things take a long time and they are difficult to implement unless you can establish security.”
Meanwhile, abuses by Nigerian security services against civilians remain a problem, Campbell said.
In the short term, Pham said, the U.S. will need to work closely with Nigeria’s neighbors to help ensure security forces in the region are prepared to counter Boko Haram should the violence expand beyond Nigeria’s borders.
Boko Haram is “a growing regional security threat that has the potential, over time, to really hurt our interests and those of our allies in a very delicate part of the world,” Pham said.