Boko Haram: Western Involvement And Lessons For African Governments
On the night of April 14 and 15 2014, an unthinkable event occurred in a girls' school in Chibok, Borno State, in North-Eastern Nigeria. A mass kidnapping of approximately 276 young school girls by the Islamist group Boko Haram has gotten the attention of African and World leaders as they try to find ways to deal with domestic insecurities that have fundamental regional and global security implications.
Many 'songs and dances' have choreographed Boko Haram's inception and operations in Northern Nigeria, and it is unfortunate that it has to come down to such mass kidnappings of vulnerable young women for the international community to respond to Boko Haram's threat.In Nigeria, the dreaded Boko Haram had already instilled terror in the hearts and minds of the Nigerian people. The group has already murdered approximately 4000 people in Nigeria in 2014, and it does not seem ready to let down judging from the fact that they have been emboldened enough to strike in the heart of the Nigerian capital, Abuja, and elsewhere.
There is no doubt that the Nigerian government needs some regional and international support to deal with the situation. Already ECOWAS and some Countries such as the US, Canada, Israel, France, Iran, have lined up to offer assistance. The question then becomes how long such assistance is going to last? Is this going to be another situation where Western governments would be dragged into an unending operation in a foreign land?
Will drones be called in? Is there going to be collateral damage, and would that unleash whole new Boko Haram sympathizers just like Al Qaeda? It is common knowledge that heavy international military presence and activities has engendered a spike in sympathy for religious extremism. A drove of foreign help in Nigeria will again test the effectiveness of such security assistance in cases of religious extremism.
In a much broader view, the international community should reconsider certain strings attached to development assistance given to countries in the developing world. Obviously, the Boko Haram situation is a human security problem. Increases in Nigeria government's military spending and that of other African states are no match for domestic insecurities. It is ironic to see the Nigerian military's inability to deal with the menace of Boko Haram, when it had led the West African sub-region to deal with even violent conflicts in countries such as Liberia and Sierra Leone during the civil wars in those states. The lack of opportunities for the youth to anticipate and live a decent future life has a role to play in this insecurity dilemma.
The ruling government in Nigeria and many other African states have consistently neglected its citizens and refused to create enabling environment for the youth to exploit and develop themselves. For now, surveillance technology, and other military hardware as well as intelligence gatherings and military personnel provided by the international community are a step in the right direction to find the girls. In the very, very short term, the goal to free the girls must be sustained and the girls freed as quickly as possible to avoid collateral damage. This could be done with the collaboration of neighboring states such as Cameroon, Niger, Chad, Benin, and possibly Mali. However, aggressively working hand in hand with the Nigerian government to focus on development projects in Northern Nigeria could enhance the chances of persuading the youth to reject religious violence.
According to Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada about CAD $ 45.85 million was spend in Nigeria for development projects in 2011-2012. Most of these funds were spend in the area of healthcare including maternal health, polio eradication, and health governance. Much as this effort is appreciated, there is the need to double up on investments to deal with the issue of youth unemployment that has always been characterized as a 'ticking time bomb' in most of the developing world.
On the other side, African leaders need to be serious with security within their respective states and the region. The joint declaration issued in Abuja to 'eradicate' Boko Haram is a first step of commitment. It should therefore not stop with just declaration since there have often been too many of such 'declarations.' There are, however, aspects of 'Boko Haram-like' situations in existence in many of these African states ready to cause domestic problems. If an African government thinks the Islamist challenge in Nigeria is only localized in Nigeria, they may be in for a surprise. The instability in Nigeria threatens the entire region. African governments always claim not to have resources to operate farther from their state capitals to their border perimeters.
The alternative is to make the remote areas safe havens for the few who want to cause trouble in the region. It is a fact that terrorists have long figured it out that governments, especially those in the developing world, do not have the means to launch a sustained crack-down on terrorist activities for a long time. As the Nigerian case suggests, the military is reluctant to go deep into the jungles to root out Boko Haram's strongholds.Boko Haram hideouts are inaccessible due to the lack of road networks and appropriate vehicles to get to those places.
If any government should take a lesson from what is unfolding in Nigeria, they should make it a priority to appropriate resources to construct good road networks, and other infrastructure that connects every part of the country and make them accessible. In that case the environment becomes very difficult for the trouble-makers to hide.
States in Africa should operate from the assumption that religious extremism has become part of regular political violence such as protests and demonstrations. With this assumption, it will enable them to plan regarding short, medium, and long term strategies to deal with the situation should one occur. Such strategies obviously begin with real openness of the political system so citizens can be proud of and contribute to its defence and growth. Investing resources in the youth by creating and developing in them entrepreneurial skill must be the ultimate goal.
The attitude of waiting for the government to employ people should be changed to an attitude of people having the skills and available resources to start their own business. Dealing with religious extremism within states would probably require the establishment of a meso-security apparatus that falls between the regular law enforcement responsibilities of the police, and the army's responsibility of protecting national borders. A new security service that is trained to be able to wait out extremist attitude and operations for the longer term needs to be put in place.
Dr. Francis Wiafe-Amoako is an adjunct professor in International Relations and African Studies at the University of Toronto and Ryerson University. He is also the Director of the Center for the Sustained Domestic Security and Development (CESDOSED).