22 May 2014, The Tablet

The UK and the US made it harder for Jonathan to contain Boko Haram

by Khataza Gondwe

Another week, another litany of attacks that bear the hallmarks of Boko Haram, the Islamist militia terrorising large parts of Nigeria. On Tuesday 118 died in a bomb attack in Jos, yesterday 17 people were killed when terrorists looted and razed a village in a Christian-majority part of Borno state near Chibok – the village from where Boko Haram gunmen abducted more than 200 schoolgirls five weeks ago.

Journalists who flew in to report on the abductions found Nigerians united across tribes, creeds and regions to demand intervention from the Government of President Goodluck Jonathan. Using broad brushstrokes to depict the country’s malaise, the international press bemoaned Nigeria’s poverty and corruption, weak institutions, and an incompetent Government that had failed in its responsibility to protect its civilians.

These assertions, though correct in part, do not cover the complexities. Nigeria is a federal, not a centralised state, and state governors exercise considerable powers in their own right. Influential voices in northern states, 11 of which adopted the Sharia penal code (including Borno), have spoken of the legitimacy of Boko Haram’s “grievances” even after atrocities, and called on the Federal Government to accommodate its members financially.

The Governor of Borno State, Kashim Shettima, and Senator Ali Ndume, who featured in a BBC report bemoaning the federal Government’s lack of concern for northern communities, have been persistently accused of colluding with Boko Haram, which both continue to deny.

In February Boko Haram attacked a boarding school in Yobe State, another northern state that has adopted Sharia, slitting the throats of or burning alive more than 50 people, mainly schoolboys. The Borno State government ordered the closure of all high schools. However, the Chibok school re-opened after state authorities gave assurances of protection. Reports on the number of soldiers assigned to the school on the evening the girls were taken vary from three to 15, but all agree that they possessed limited ammunition.

In late 2013, Boko Haram destroyed at least 46 predominantly Christian villages in the Gwoza area of Borno State, forcing more than 14,000 Christians to flee into neighbouring Cameroon. And there are rumours of collusion by elements within the armed forces, who allegedly warn Boko Haram of impending operations.

But credit needs to be given where it’s due: the states of emergency declared by the government in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe a year ago to some extent did achieve their intention, reducing attacks by Boko Haram and its deadly offshoot, Ansaru, in key cities. Unfortunately, Boko Haram eventually countered with attacks on soft targets such as highways, schools and villages, and the military has yet to formulate a strategy to address this effectively.

The Nigerian security services have made inroads into terrorist cells, at various junctures arresting key suspects – but some were released following interventions by highly placed individuals. Largely unreported were the recent arrests by State Security Services of the perpetrators of recent bombings in Nyanya, near Abuja – one of them British-born and radicalised at a Welsh university – perhaps because it was at odds with the “failing institution” narrative.

This view may have contributed to the UK and the US delay in designating Boko Haram a terrorist organisation despite its evolution into a transnational organisation and regional threat, until mid- and late-2013 respectively. It may also have occasioned delays in supplying practical assistance after designation, due to abiding perceptions of a counterinsurgency strategy that has yet to adequately safeguard civilian lives.

The abductions appear to have galvanised the UK, US and others into sending long-needed technical and practical assistance. France convened a security summit in Paris last weekend that ended with Nigeria and its neighbours, including a previously taciturn Cameroon (whose northern region is effectively a Boko Haram sanctuary), pledging war against the group. Who knows whether with assistance, the full co-operation of neighbouring states and a population increasingly choosing to unite against terrorism, the Government may yet defy expectations and bring the girls home. Their families, and indeed the world, fervently hope so.

Dr Khataza Gondwe leads Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s work in Africa and the Middle East


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