Derek H. Burney, a senior strategic advisor to Norton Rose Fulbright, was Canada’s Ambassador to the U.S. from 1989-1993. He was directly involved in negotiating the free-trade agreement with the U.S.; Fen Osler Hampson is a distinguished fellow and director of global security at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and chancellor’s professor (on leave) at Carleton University.
African leaders met in Paris over the weekend to declare war on Boko Haram. They agreed to work more closely together to eradicate the group, which was responsible for the brutal kidnapping of 223 schoolgirls in northern Nigeria last month.
Convening a meeting is no substitute for action or leadership, however, as recent gabfests on Ukraine and Syria abjectly demonstrate. As the leaders of Nigeria, Niger, Benin, Chad, and Cameroon were taking a pledge to share intelligence and co-ordinate action, Boko Haram was launching a fresh round of attacks in northern Cameroon and Nigeria.
This shady terrorist group is part and parcel of a larger trend of Islamic extremism that is now sweeping across both northern and sub-Saharan Africa. The network includes the north African branch of al-Qaeda (al Qaeda in the Maghreb) and al-Shabaab in Somalia. It is a development which, if unaddressed, will destabilize governments and destroy the important social, economic and political gains Africans have made in recent years.
However, one has to ask why it has taken so long to recognize the dangers posed by Boko Haram notwithstanding the fact that thousands have already died at its murderous hands. The lack of global outrage is appalling. Regrettably, yesterday’s news is just that.
Part of the blame lies with Washington.
As Washington’s Politico Magazine recently reported, when Hilary Clinton was Secretary of State the United States went out of its way to avoid declaring Boko Haram a terrorist organization.
The White House and the State Department also denied that the group had links with al-Qaeda in spite of the fact officials within the U.S. Justice Department’s own Security Division and the U.S. Africa Military Commander argued that there was compelling evidence that such ties existed and that they extended to training, arms, and direct financial support for Boko Haram.
With Barack Obama’s own presidential re-election at play, the administration clearly tried to play down such linkages while trumpeting its success in defeating al-Qaeda in the aftermath Osama bin Laden’s assassination.
However, as the awful plight of the Nigeria’s schoolgirls shows, the threat from radical Islam remains a deadly cancer that is seemingly unquenchable by conventional military or economic means.
Boko Haram’s reliance on a perverse form of Islam frees it from the most basic elements of civility. Girls, for example, are not allowed to go to school and are forced into early marriage like indentured slaves. Kidnappings, murder, and bombings are its weapons of choice. The West and moderate Islamists are powerless against a foe whose professed faith is as venal as its tactics.
Boko Haram’s goal is to impose an Islamic state on Nigeria and and though it may not succeed in achieving that goal it is sowing mayhem across the region as it takes its campaign of terror across Nigeria and into neighboring countries.
But it is not only Africans who have to worry about this group as it capitalizes on its new found notoriety. In February 2012, for example, Boko Haram publicly threatened to assassinate U.S. Ambassador Terence McCulley if the U.S. helped Nigeria with its counterterrorist operations. Nigeria’s daily air links with Europe and North America point to another set of vulnerabilities that could also be exploited by the group should it decide to take it campaign of terror overseas.
Some Western governments are now lending advisory support to help find the girls. Such ad hoc engagement is a last resort, one stop short of abject futility. Better than nothing of course, but it underpins the lack of strategic thinking, focus, and political resolve. And it is going to take more than one-day meeting in Paris to develop a coherent regional and global strategy to address the problem.
Nigeria’s feckless political leadership also bears responsibility for this crisis. It is a little more than ironic that Nigeria can host and secure a World Economic Forum for global dignitaries, but is incapable of providing basic security for the most vulnerable members of its own society – defenceless young girls.
The government’s brutal, ham-fisted military operations against Boko Haram are generally viewed as being counterproductive and have only further served to estrange Abuja, the country’s capital, from Nigeria’s Muslim-dominated northern regions.
The corrupt, self-serving ways of Nigeria’s elites are also leading to a loss of political authority, legitimacy and control. As the world’s 6th largest oil producer and Africa’s biggest, Nigeria possesses major natural gas reserves. Yet few benefits have trickled down to ordinary Nigerians, many of whom barely subsist on an income less than a dollar a day.
Throw Islamic extremism onto a combustible mix of Nigeria’s longstanding interethnic and religious rivalries, coupled with an appalling, yawning gap between rich and poor, and all of the ingredients are there for a catastrophic political explosion.
Nothing excuses the mindless antics of religious zealots, not even the corrupt and inept ways Nigeria’s government. But the real problem is that neither Africans nor the West have found a cure for this virulent, political cancer any more than for the medical version.