These past couple weeks were rough. While a majority of Western nations had their eyes glued to the television screen as terrorists struck the magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing over a dozen civilians and police officers alike and then engaged in acts of violence throughout Paris, an even worse tragedy unfolded. On January 3rd, Boko Haram launched a brazen attack in Baga, Nigeria, and hundreds, possibly thousands, of people were reportedly killed. While it has been difficult to obtain an accurate number, local officials and news outlets are reporting as many as 2,000 casualties. Sadly this was just the most recent of a series of violent attacks that have rocked Nigeria as the country gears up for its 2015 Presidential elections.
The most immediate question that should be asked is why is this barbarous act of terror not getting the same kind of reaction as the terror attacks in Paris? The horror in Nigeria has received scant coverage compared to Paris where millions marched in solidarity with the French people. No world leaders are rushing to Nigeria to show their support for the embattled African nation. One of the most on point (and saddest) answers to this difficult question came from former Maj. General James “Spider” Marks when asked on CNN why more is not being done to counter Boko Haram:
Its not a priority. We are committed elsewhere in the world. Black West Africa is not a priority. Very stark, very hard to say, but that’s the case right now. It’s a regional issue. If we were to see Boko Haram appear in some other region of the world … we would be alarmed.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan also isn’t exactly making a heartfelt case for international attention on the Boko Haram issue. While he released a statement expressing solidarity with the French people in the immediate aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, he did not comment on the massacres going on at home until the end of this week (that’s almost two weeks of silence). He recently announced his reelection bid for the Nigerian Presidency and some Nigerians believe he has kept relatively quiet on the attacks, as he believes it will cost him votes in the election. Whatever the reason, the continuing violence demonstrates that Nigerian tactics to counter the terrorist organization are simply not working.
In May 2013, President Jonathan declared a state of emergency in the three northern states of Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe. This declaration was supposed to give the Nigerian armed forces free reign in defeating Boko Haram. However, 20 months later, many believe the state of emergency has been a complete failure. In fact, it has been said that the state of emergency may have exacerbated the violence. According to the BBC, in the year leading up to the state of emergency, there were 741 civilian deaths reported. At the 1-year mark of the declaration, the casualties had more than tripled to 2,265. 6 months later, the state of emergency was dead; lawmakers rejected to extend it any further. Hussaini Abdu, Director of Action Aid in Nigeria, highlighted how things seemed to get worse during the state of emergency: “Before the emergency, Boko Haram was operating mainly around Damaturu and Maiduguri…but since the emergency we have seen Boko Haram moving and occupying from 14 to 16 local governments in all the states.”
While the latest violence in Baga demonstrates the failure of the state of emergency, it is an even bigger example of the failure of the military that is supposed to stop Boko Haram. Nigerian soldiers in a multinational base near Baga fled the area after believing themselves to be outgunned by the terrorist group. Members of the military have repeatedly claimed that they are unequipped to deal with Boko Haram.
Poorly equipped or not, the military has often been heavy handed in its response to Boko Haram attacks, with organizations such as Amnesty International accusing the troops of human rights violations. In Baga itself, the military reportedly stormed the area after being ambushed by Boko Haram militants in April 2013 and ended up killing 200 people. Such violence does little to help the situation and creates distrust between civilians and those who are supposed to protect them.
Nigeria has clearly demonstrated that it is incapable of dealing with Boko Haram, which now raises the issue of international support, or lack thereof. While many world leaders marched in Paris, how many do you think will march in Nigeria in memory of those lost in Baga? This is not to belittle the good-hearted actions of those in Paris, but life is sacred everywhere and Nigeria could definitely use some support.
While the US has heavily involved itself in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), it has done little to help Nigeria combat a terrorist organization that has declared its own Islamic State and has began operating in a similar manner to ISIS. The US only sent 80 personnel and deployed some surveillance drones and aircraft to help take part in the search for the Chibok schoolgirls who were kidnapped in 2014. According to John Campbell at the Council on Foreign Relations, part of the reason the US is reluctant to engage further is a fear that any overt military aid in combatting the group would alienate the Muslim population of Nigeria and across the Sahel. Despite this fear, the United States should help formulate a regional plan that involves Nigeria’s neighbors as they have a stake in having a more stable Nigeria on their border.
France has already taken the lead on this issue, creating an initiative that calls for Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad to contribute 700 troops each to a multinational force against Boko Haram. While troop commitments have been slow, it was reported on January 16th, that Chad would send a large contingent of troops to help support Cameroon who has been dealing with Boko Haram conducting cross-border attacks on its army bases from Nigeria. Chad’s decision is a sign of progress but more will be needed. The US must play a more active role in drumming up troop commitments from the other countries and at the very least provide other types of assistance such as intelligence capabilities and some military advisers. ISIS is a serious threat and the US shouldn’t focus on Nigeria at the Middle East’s expense. But continued inaction could lead to Boko Haram strengthening and even expanding its territorial gains, which could spell disaster for neighboring African states and the international community at large.