Robert Rotberg is the founding director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s program on intrastate conflict, a former senior fellow at CIGI and president emeritus of the World Peace Foundation. His latest book is Things Come Together: Africans Achieving Greatness.
Disruptive forces are overrunning Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country and once a strong linchpin of the continent. But it has slipped from a position of palpable weakness to one of thoroughgoing failure just as many of its neighbours and near-neighbours are being simultaneously stormed by mercenary legions loyal to al-Qaeda in the Maghreb or to affiliated insurgents.
Within Nigeria, Boko Haram continues to assault civilians in the northeast, sometimes from bases in northern Cameroon and from within the Sambisa forest near the border with that country. Moreover, across several of Nigeria’s Muslim northern states, kidnappers grab schoolchildren almost at will, and hold them for ransom. In some of the same states, and farther south well into the Igbo region, Hausa-speaking Muslim herders battle settled farmers for access to land and water, frequently clashing violently. Even the waters are dangerous, too; Nigeria’s Gulf of Guinea has become the home of the globe’s most intense plague of maritime piracy, with 130 vessels held hostage last year.
Nigeria and the other embattled states of West Africa all seem powerless to stem the cascade of violent extremism that now engulfs them. That means that they have been increasingly compromised by their inability to provide fundamental security to their citizens, and must be considered not just fragile, but declared failed – one step short of “collapsed,” a determination that today describes Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen. (To be “failed” means that violence has overtaken order, and that the national government no longer keeps its people safe from harm. In such states, the writ of government hardly extends much beyond a national capital.) And in such a situation, European and American military support is required more than ever before.
Nigeria, in theory the most formidable of all of the Islamist-penetrated states of West Africa, has a powerful army of nearly 300,000 soldiers. But since about 2012, it has demonstrably failed to contain Boko Haram, a one-time fervent Islamist movement that is now loosely linked to al-Qaeda and prospers by trafficking in narcotics.
Supposedly, Boko Haram has fewer than 6,000 combatants, and should be easy prey for Nigeria’s security forces – but just as all of Nigeria is riddled with corrupt practices, petty and grand, even its once-proud military stands accused of corruption. Commanding officers allegedly sell rations rather than keeping their troops well-fed, and are alleged to have profited from weapon sales to Boko Haram, their enemy. Whether or not such charges are credible, a massive military presence in the state of Borno and others nearby has failed to quell Boko Haram. It was only when troops loyal to Idriss Déby, Chad’s now-deceased dictator, joined Nigerian forces did Boko Haram suffer serious reverses.
Beyond Borno, the spate of recent attacks on schools and the punitive taking of schoolchildren for ransom has alarmed Nigeria and deepened the disaffection of its citizens. Moreover, in the southeastern Igbo-speaking region – which was consumed in the 1960s by a secessionist civil war – a new separatist movement is threatening the integrity of the country.
President Muhammadu Buhari, who campaigned successfully for election in 2015 and 2019 by promising to curtail corruption and restore Nigeria’s sense of itself – to effectively make Nigeria great again – has completely failed to deliver. His government lurches from insurgent episode to insurgent episode, and it can no longer claim to shine brightly as a democracy amid West Africa’s growing darkness.
Several other West African governments are equally forlorn, having been unable so far to hold back al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of West Africa from recruiting adherents and terrorizing large areas across Africa’s sub-Saharan Sahel region.
This is surely not the time for France, Britain or the United States to withdraw military assistance or to cease providing critical intelligence from airborne surveillance operations. Given Nigeria and the other countries’ inability to secure their own populations, outsiders must redouble their security and humanitarian efforts throughout West Africa.
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