Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1205, (10 - 16 July 2014)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1205, (10 - 16 July 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Boko Haram beyond Nigeria

As militant Islamist militias in Africa south of the Sahara gain momentum, there is a dire need for a coordinated continental strategy to combat their menace, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

There is a nebulous perception that Nigeria as a nation sits on a most dangerous fault line. It is impossible now to treat Boko Haram as anything other than an international pariah. It is an Islamist terrorist organisation that does not bow in the face of might — military or otherwise. Yet reports Tuesday that some 60 women and girls escaped from its clutches in northeast Nigeria confirm that the terrorist organisation is not invincible.

Nigeria must regain the initiative and do away with Boko Haram, once and for all. As Al-Ahram Weekly goes to press, it is not quite clear how the women escaped. Despite this week’s breaking news, it would be foolish to predict how the crisis in Nigeria will evolve. There are still more than 100 women and girls held hostage by the terrorist group.

The myth Boko Haram seems hell bent on perpetuating is that it can destroy Nigeria and establish an Islamist fundamentalist state in the northern parts of the country. Rushing to save whatever authority the Nigerian government has in the remote northern backwaters of the country might sound somewhat foolhardy. But Nigeria has no other choice. It cannot afford to have a militant Islamist state founded in its territory. It is worth noting that the wealth of the country is in the southern half, with its tremendous agricultural potential and oil wealth. The impoverished northern parts of the country, simply put, are economically nonviable.

What is vital is how the Nigerian authorities are handling the crisis. Nigeria has been relying on Western powers mainly because it does not fully trust its security forces, as they are suspected of being infiltrated by Boko Haram. United States drones flying from bases in Chad are trying to locate the missing schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram. Some 80 US military personnel were dispatched to neighbouring Chad last month in an attempt to launch a search for the abducted schoolgirls. Suspected Boko Haram gunmen rampaged through villages in northern Nigeria, killing people at random and burning houses to the ground, instigating a reign of terror through a pattern of horrific violence and that has become the daily reality in the predominantly Muslim north of the country.

Those privy to all this palaver point out that the Nigerian authorities are incapable of bringing Boko Haram to book without Western intervention. This is a grievous affair for the African continent’s most populous nation and largest economy. There is political will among the Nigerian establishment to shield the country from the storm Boko Haram is creating. But the question is how. The United States is providing key training in counter-terrorism to the Nigerian military. But who will finish the job?

America’s involvement has not deterred Boko Haram from striking again and again. Hundreds of innocent civilians were reported killed in northeast Nigeria’s war-torn Borno state on the border with Cameroon, where the militant Islamist organisation appears to be most active. The exact numbers of villagers dead is unknown, though some sources put the death toll at 400 to 500. Heavily armed militiamen dressed as soldiers in all-terrain vehicles and on motorcycles ravaged the countryside, causing havoc and terrifying villagers.

The most bloody attack by Boko Haram in the past few weeks occurred in the town of Kerenua, near the border with neighbouring Niger. Scores of militants opened fire on innocent civilians, killing dozens. “Only those that would later get pregnant, as the sect members would find it difficult to cater for the babies in the forest, might be released,” noted former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo. “I have ways of communicating with Boko Haram members, but the government has not permitted me to do so,” Obasanjo was quoted as saying.

On the slippery slopes of the dunes and arid scrubs leading to the sands of the Sahara, all three attacks happened in remote parts of Borno state, the epicentre of Boko Haram’s increasingly bloody struggle for an Islamic emirate in northern Nigeria.

The Nigerian authorities appear to lack the appetite to address the Boko Haram conundrum head on. This attitude was obvious when Boko Haram attacked neighbouring Goshe, Attagara, Agapalwa and Aganjara villages in Gwoza district bordering Cameroon. The Boko Haram threat will undoubtedly spread to other neighbouring African countries if not checked. The trend, as in the Middle East, is for militant Islamist terrorist groups to ignore national borders. As with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Boko Haram has expansive ambitions.

This was followed by an attack against Chinese nationals in northern Cameroon, which is known as a stronghold for the militant Islamist terrorists. Ten Chinese nationals went missing. Such incidents have become increasingly embarrassing for the Nigerian government. Its neighbours are likewise concerned.

“Boko Haram is no longer a local terror group. It is clearly operating as an Al-Qaeda operation,” extrapolated Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan in Paris yesterday.

Other African leaders concurred with President Jonathan. “We are here to declare war on Boko Haram,” Cameroon President Paul Biya declared.

“There is determination to tackle this situation head on, to launch a war, a total war on Boko Haram,” Chad’s President Idriss Deby said. Chad has become a critical springboard for Western forces in the continent due to its strategic location in the heart of Africa, halfway between the eastern and western parts of the continent. French and American troops are stationed in the sparsely populated, predominantly Muslim country straddling the Saharan and Sahelian belts of Africa.

Nigeria is set to coordinate patrols, pool intelligence and exchange weapons and human trafficking information with Benin, Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

Boko Haram does not recognise the traditional authority of the Muslim rulers of northern Nigeria. The Sultan of Kano, Ado Abdullahi Bayero, who was on the throne for half a century, died peacefully in his palace at the age of 83. But even someone with his authority as a traditional ruler was regarded as a target for Boko Haram. He was subjected to an assassination attempt and Boko Haram was suspected to be behind the attack, in January last year, which killed four of his bodyguards. A further threat is linkage to other militant Islamist groups in Africa.

In Kenya, the militant Islamist militia Al-Shabab is using the very same cross-border tactics used by Boko Haram. Kenya has more than 4,000 troops operating in Somalia. They were deployed to diffuse the threat of Al-Shabab and to bolster the nascent Somali democracy. Kenyan troops were subsequently integrated into the African Union (AU) force of some 17,000 troops from a number of East African countries neighbouring Somalia.

The AU force, known as AMISOM, has so far failed to quell Al-Shabab’s menace, not only in Somalia, but also more critically in Kenya. More than 60 people were murdered in cold blood in the vicinity of the town of Mpeketoni, on Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta indicated that “local political networks” assisted Al-Shabab and that the ethnic Kikuyu people were specifically targeted. Kenyatta, a Kikuyu himself, warned that his people were attacked because they were not Muslim. The spill over of militant violence has become a menace that demands continental coordination.

An AU blueprint for confronting this new pressing problem is an absolute necessity.

If this trend is not contained it could lead to further calamities throughout the continent. The Kenyan Kikuyu people are viewed by their Muslim neighbours as interlopers for the Kenyan authorities. Yet, policymakers in Africa are still a long way from fully understanding — let alone embracing a continental strategy for combatting — militant Islamist terrorism. This in turn implies that reliance on Western security and military forces will continue to dominate the so-called “war on terror” in Africa.

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