Before We Get Carried Away...

We are all outraged by Boko Haram's kidnapping of over 250 schoolgirls. But an international response that further fuels Nigeria's toxic mix of insecurity, violence, and politics is not the answer, argues Rita Abrahamsen.
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May 22, 2014

It is rare that Africa captures the attention of the world. Its everyday suffering is normally barely a ripple on the global airwaves. Not so with the kidnapped schoolgirls of Chibok. By now, the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls has been retweeted over three million times. The U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama is “heartbroken.” Presidents, prime ministers, and ministers of foreign affairs are outraged, and foreign military assistance in the form of personnel and technology has been offered from the United States, UK, Israel, and China, as well as Canada. From the Elysée Palace in Paris, President François Hollande and African leaders have declared “total war” on Boko Haram, the group that still holds over 250 girls hostage.

Everyone, it seems, is united in moral outrage—not only that such a heinous act could take place, but also over the callous and feeble reaction of the Nigerian government in Abuja. Nearly two weeks passed before President Goodluck Jonathan even acknowledged the abductions, and even then he only seemed to react once shamed by international public opinion.

There can be no excuse for the Nigerian government’s belated response to the abductions. The government has displayed utter neglect for its northern populations, and its lack of concern for the schoolgirls is merely another indication of a longstanding disregard for the north. President Jonathan clearly prefers Paris to Chibok, the former offering both better photo ops and more welcoming audiences.

Nobody knows this better than Nigerians themselves: Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy and the continent’s largest oil producer, yet most Nigerians are poorer now than they were at independence in 1960. Over 70 percent of the population lives in poverty. No wonder Nigerians are both angry and ashamed of their government, welcoming the international support and political pressure that has been brought to bear on their leaders.

But before we get carried away, let’s consider the blind spot of the moral high ground currently occupied by world opinion. As Western military experts, surveillance aircrafts and drones start hunting for the missing girls, this much-needed rescue mission risks becoming a moral cover for the global war on terror and the further militarization of Africa.

For Goodluck Jonathan, and other African leaders meeting at the Elysée Palace, there is much to be gained from such a response—in terms of financial and military assistance and in terms of excuses for their own failures to stem the rise of violent extremism. President Jonathan is thus unequivocal that Boko Haram should be fought as part of the global war on terror and is more than happy to agree with President Hollande that Boko Haram is a “global threat.”

The facts are a lot more complicated, and reality a lot more messy. Boko Haram has killed more than 2,000 people so far this year, and its methods are getting more violent and its targets more indiscriminate. Its latest bomb attacks at a crowded market in Jos killed over 100 people, both Christians and Muslims, including many women and children. Its leader, Abubakar Shekau, espouses an extreme ideology and seems to delight in inhuman performances such as threatening to sell young girls into slavery. But there is little evidence that Boko Haram has any direct or firm links to other terrorist groups, or that it is engaged in or primarily motivated by a global jihadist campaign against the West in any simple way.

Instead, Boko Haram is a distinctly Nigerian insurgency rooted firmly in Nigerian politics and the longstanding economic and political neglect of the north. Its chilling name (meaning Western education is sinful or forbidden) reflects the group’s early demand for better Islamic education and improved government services. Its increasingly violent attacks are cause for serious concern both locally and globally; but this is an insurgency that cannot be defeated by military means alone.

Indeed, if there are any lessons to be learned from Nigeria’s botched campaign against Boko Haram, it is that hard-core security responses are likely to backfire and lead to retaliation and further escalation of violence. Most observers agree that the security forces’ extra-judicial execution of the group’s previous leader, Mohammed Yusuf, in 2009 resulted in an intensification of violent tactics, which gradually turned from attacks on state institutions such as police stations towards soft targets such as churches, markets and schools. Similarly, the past year of emergency rule in the three northern states has done little to improve the security situation, and the brutal tactics of the poorly equipped, poorly trained and poorly paid Joint Task Force (combining the police, the military and other security forces) have further alienated local people. In 2013 Amnesty International reported that at least 1,000 Nigerians (many of them Boko Haram suspects held without trial or evidence) had died in police custody in the first half of the year. In the north of Nigeria, not only Boko Haram but also the state is a source of insecurity.

The risk at the moment is that international moral outrage will encourage further militarization of the continent. ‘Total war’ is not a durable solution to this situation, whatever message we might get from the Elysée Palace. Military measures might form part of an effective counter-insurgency, but a viable solution will require political negotiations and a retreat from heavy-handed military and police methods that risk pushing yet more people towards violence and extremism. It requires reform of the security services and an end to impunity. And more than anything, it requires a sustained program of poverty reduction and social and economic development in the three northern states.

Before we get carried away by moral rectitude, let’s pause. We all want the girls back, but care is needed lest easy social-media solidarity lead to international responses that will further fuel the toxic mix of insecurity, violence, and politics that bred Boko Haram in the first place.

The original version of this piece was published by the Centre for International Policy Studies at the University of Ottawa on May 22, 2014.