Terrorism has risen to the top of the agenda in West Africa following the abduction of almost 300 schoolgirls in north-eastern Nigeria by Boko Haram militants. The failure of the Nigerian government to find and free the girls has shone a spotlight on the inability of President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration to tackle the insurgency in the north of the country. Largely as a result, his government has reversed its position on international assistance, and now appears more willing to accept help from abroad.
Although the instability in northern Nigeria received relatively little international coverage until the news of the schoolgirls’ abduction, the Boko Haram insurgency has been raging for over a decade. Founded as the Congregation of the People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad by Mohammed Yusuf in 2002, Boko Haram (the Hausa name for the Congregation, which translates as “western education is sacrilege”) has carried out a series of attacks that are estimated to have resulted in over 10,000 deaths. This has led to tremendous political instability in the worst affected northern states such as Borno, Adamawa, Kaduna, Bauchi, Yobe and Kano. According to the Nigeria Security Tracker of the Council on Foreign Relations, an American think tank, over 10,000 people have died in violence motivated by “political, economic, or social grievances” in Borno state alone.
In 2009, clashes between Boko Haram supporters and Nigerian security forces in the capital of Borno state, Maiduguri, resulted in hundreds of deaths and the arrest of Mohammed Yusuf. According to the Nigerian government, Yusuf was subsequently killed by security forces as he attempted to escape custody. President Goodluck Jonathan was optimistic that these operations and the death of Yusuf had broken the back of Boko Haram. As the number and ferocity of the attacks tailed off, this conclusion at first seemed justified.
But Boko Haram was only lying low to regroup. While it was initially thought that the movement’s second in command, Abubakar Shekau, had died in the 2009 attacks, video footage subsequently confirmed that he was very much alive and, having married one of Mohammed Yusuf’s four wives and adopted their children, had taken over as the operational leader of Boko Haram. Under his leadership, the organization became still more ambitious and violent. In 2011, a car bomb detonated in the United Nation’s Abuja offices killed 21 and wounded 60.
Numerous attacks followed including on a bus station in Abuja on April 14 of this year. Seventy people were killed. Another car bomb in the same area a few weeks later claimed another 19 victims. The abduction of nearly 300 schoolgirls aged 12 to 17 in Chibo, Borno state, was thus the latest in a long line of atrocities that the Nigerian state has been powerless to prevent.
Some commentators attribute the ferocious resurgence of Boko Haram to a “northern plot” to destabilise the presidency of Goodluck Jonathan, who hails from Bayelsa, the country’s southernmost state, and ascended to the presidency upon the untimely death of Presideny Umaru Yar’Adua in 2010. The idea underpinning this conspiracy theory is that northern political leaders are helping to fund and organize Boko Haram in order to undermine Jonathan’s credibility and prospects for re-election in 2015. However, Boko Haram has targeted moderate figures within the north, and many northern leaders appear to be as afraid of the insurgency as their southern counterparts.
Other commentators locate the source of ongoing instability elsewhere, suggesting that the actions of President Goodluck Jonathan have made the situation worse rather than better. Their criticisms fall into three main categories. First, a number of close observers of Boko Haram argue that the killing of Mohammed Yusuf and numerous activists in 2009 made the insurgency more, rather than less, violent. Such critics suggest that simply fighting “fire with fire” has not been successful so far and is unlikely to be successful in the future. Peace, they suggest, can only come from a negotiated solution to the crisis.
Second, some security experts argue that the Nigerian government’s over-reliance on the military has resulted in the deployment of a counter-insurgency strategy that is doomed to failure. Military forces are very effective if you are fighting a known force in a known location and all that is required is brute force to carry the day. But the military has often proved to be a rather blunt and ineffective instrument against terrorist cells that operate in multiple locations in the context of a diffuse organizational structure. Critics suggest that preventing terrorist attacks requires good information and effective policing rather than heavy-handed military intervention, but this is precisely what Nigeria lacks.
Third, President Goodluck Jonathan is criticized for failing to accept international assistance. Throughout the insurgency the Nigerian government has been keen to depict the crisis as a “domestic issue” and to reject offers of international assistance. Even following the schoolgirl kidnappings, it took the president three weeks to publicly acknowledge what had happened and another two days to accept an offer of help from the United States. Upon hearing the news, President Obama pledged to send ‘team of our military, law enforcement and other experts’.
As soon as the principle of international assistance was accepted, though, the floodgates opened. One day later, France announced that it would be sending security service agents to help in the fight against Boko Haram. Two days after that, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that a British team had arrived in Nigeria to complement the one sent by the United States. Amidst all of this activity, John Mahama, the President of Ghana, and the chairman of Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), arrived in Abuja for talks with his Nigerian counterpart about possible regional responses to homegrown terrorism. This is a particularly important development, because it seems likely that the abducted girls have been taken across the border and are now in Chad or Niger.
Sadly, these responses may well prove to be too little, too late. If the schoolgirls have been taken across the border and split up between different Boko Haram leaders, or sold into slavery, it will be incredibly difficult to find them and bring them home. But President Jonathan may nonetheless be right that the tragedy will act as a ‘turning point’. By forcing the Nigerian government to face up to its own limitations, and by triggering the provision of much needed counter-insurgency assistance, one of the saddest episodes in the country’s recent history could be the moment when the tide finally turns against Boko Haram.