Gestures won’t defeat Boko Haram

Written by Professor Chris Day for the Post & Courier

Posted: Monday, May 26, 2014 12:01 a.m.

Nigeria does not have a kidnapping problem. It has a Boko Haram problem. The armed group’s abduction of hundreds of young girls is a shameless abuse of human rights. But the recent social media obsession with the issue misses that the four-year-old insurgency is a direct reflection of the country’s more fundamental ills – systematic corruption, failed development and grinding poverty.

This makes the decision by the United States to send 80 troops to Chad to help find the missing girls all the more frustrating. It is a nice gesture. But it is little more than a humanitarian fig leaf that masks the avoidance of more meaningful, albeit thorny political engagement needed to deal with Nigeria’s violence.

What distinguishes Boko Haram is its intersection with political Islam and its use of violence. The group is a splinter of a broader political movement that unsuccessfully sought to impose Sharia law in parts of northern Nigeria. It gained strength through linkages with al-Qaeda’s regional affiliates, and the group populated its decentralized structure with fighters recruited from northern Nigeria’s alienated, unemployed youth that were radicalized with anti-Western messages.

What started as attacks against government officials expanded to high profile bombings, shootings of civilians, and kidnappings – in other words, terrorism. In response, Nigeria’s security forces have been incompetent and ham-handed. Overtures towards dialogue are met with mistrust.

While Boko Haram’s leaders use radical Islamic discourse, it is a mistake to paint the group as “Islamist,” per se, as if violence is a manifestation of being Muslim. Prominent Muslim leaders worldwide have denounced the group. Either way, the motivation to deal with Boko Haram should not be based on the professed religion of its members, but on the violence that they commit.

The United States has a mixed experience with using military force for humanitarian ends. Operation Provide Comfort in 1992 saved thousands of Iraqi Kurds stranded on the Turkish border, setting the scene for more “operations other than war.” Later in the decade, the U.S. led NATO into the first “humanitarian war” in Kosovo. But interest in Africa was curtailed by the Somali debacle of “Black Hawk Down” fame, where the relatively successful Operation Restore Hope went off the rails when the army meddled in Mogadishu’s warlord politics. Soon after, Operation Support Hope helped Rwandan refugees in Zaire, but long after the genocide was over.

Africa has never been a priority for American foreign policy. But for the past decade the U.S. has entered into military partnerships with several African governments. Based in Stuttgart, Germany, the United States Africa Command, or AFRICOM, helps secure and stabilize Africa by building and training professional armies. African allies assist the U.S. in regional counterterrorism efforts. American boots hit the ground to provide logistical assistance for specific operations, like the current hunt for Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army.

In Nigeria the U.S. has several choices. The cold approach of doing nothing has obviously been ruled out.

Going in with guns blazing brings enormous risks. Nigerian politics is amongst Africa’s most incomprehensible and can chew up and spit out even the most seasoned analyst, policy maker, or soldier. Getting bogged down in shambolic Nigeria would be a nightmare. Any intervention must have clear goals, a reasonable chance of success, and guarantee it will not do more harm than good. And the American public is already worn down by a decade of war fatigue and is allergic to any military entanglement.

The current next-to-nothing humanitarian path is politically visible but actually meaningless. It is like delivering food aid to refugees fleeing violence instead of addressing the political causes of the violence itself. It has the self-absolving veneer of trying to “make a difference” but does little to solve the underlying problems deeply rooted in Nigeria’s decaying state.

A potential upside to the current approach is that troops could be using the mission as cover for something bigger – hopefully they are taking good notes.

Either way, Nigeria is a fragmented, violent country and Boko Haram requires more than reconnaissance for a rescue mission that may or not materialize. This is merely meddling with no strategy and is more reminiscent of a movie screenplay than good policy. Nigeria’s abducted girls, and indeed all the country’s victims of insurgent violence, deserve much more.

Christopher Day is an assistant professor of political science at the College of Charleston.

Comments are closed.