Within days of their deadly terrorist attack in Paris people began to question why the killing of a few French cartoonists could produce such a feverish global response while a massacre of hundreds, possibly thousands of Nigerians by Boko Haram – a group espousing the same brand of Islamic extremism as the Kouachis – was ignored.
Whether that was down to double standards or simply geopolitics, the intensifying insurgency in northeast Nigeria is now fully back in the global spotlight. In the wake of the Paris attacks US President Barack Obama and UK Prime Minister David Cameron vowed to defeat the ‘barbaric killers’ of Boko Haram and other terrorist organizations.
In one sense, this is music to the ears of both Boko Haram and the Nigerian government.
By ‘internationalizing’ the insurgency, Boko Haram’s legitimacy within global jihadism is enhanced, accelerating the flow of weapons and fighters from the wider Jihadi network. For its part, Nigeria’s government welcomes any conflation of Boko Haram with Islamic State or Al Qa’ida, since it helps obscure its own culpability in the escalating crisis.
No one knows if the pledge by Obama and Cameron to fight terrorism in Africa will amount to much. Many would argue that it would be better for Nigeria – and Africa – if it didn’t.
Big powers can unwittingly unleash dire consequences when they try to intervene, even in a limited way, in highly complex conflicts. The current example par excellence is the West’s military intervention in Libya in 2011. President Jacob Zuma, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, has gone so far as to claim ‘the issue of Boko Haram stems from what happened in Libya’. Not quite, but it’s certainly exacerbated the problem.
Nigerian troops lack sufficient firepower and support to effectively tackle Boko Haram – hence the deteriorating morale within one of Africa’s most experienced armed forces: dozens of its soldiers are on death row for mutiny – though it’s not the full story.
Collusion between Boko Haram and the military has been well-documented. In some cases this is due to corruption, in others it’s ideological kinship. Sometimes, soldiers just don’t want to fight. No one seems to know the true extent of the problem.
The official response to Boko Haram’s killing rampage in the northeastern states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa, now in its seventh – and most destructive, according to a recent report by Amnesty International – year has been inept.
Criticism of President Goodluck Jonathan has grown since the last outrage by Boko Haram that captured the world’s attention, the (still unsolved) kidnapping of hundreds of girls in Chibok in April 2014.
Leaders in the three affected states have accused him of abandoning the opposition-controlled northeast, in part so voting cannot take place in the volatile region during next month’s national elections. The President’s supporters claim that at least one governor is funding Boko Haram and all three administrations are complicit in the group becoming ‘embedded’ in society due to years of inaction and complacency.
Together, they’ve all failed the people of the northeast, one of Nigeria’s poorest regions, home to large numbers of alienated, unemployed youth and state institutions unable to deliver basic services. Its history of religious and communal tensions amplifies the risk of radicalization.
Will any foreign militaries dare to venture into this miasmal mess?
The UN Special Representative for West Africa, Mohamed Ibn Chambas, has urged Nigeria and the three neighboring states directly affected by the insurgency – Niger, Chad and Cameroon – to set aside their differences and create a regional force to defeat the militants. Only Chad appears willing, though tellingly it has sent troops to support Cameroon, victim of several cross-border incursions by Boko Haram, rather than Nigeria.
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Dr Terence McNamee is the Deputy Director of the Johannesburg-based The Brenthurst Foundation.