The U.S. government and other Western powers are exploiting the kidnapping of hundreds of girls in Nigeria to expand their military footprint on the African continent.
Since the radical Islamic militant group Boko Haram abducted more than 200 schoolgirls in the north of the country, military officials from France, Great Britain, the U.S. and Israel have arrived in Nigeria to assist security forces in locating the missing girls. So far, they haven’t been successful: Boko Haram released a video Monday allegedly showing the abducted girls. The fundamentalist group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, threatened to sell the girls or keep them as slaves, renewing a threat that elicited global outrage when it was first aired earlier this month. The group has now offered to swap the kidnapped schoolgirls for Boko Haram prisoners in Nigerian jails.
The abductions have captured global attention and led to a rash of calls for U.S. military intervention into Nigeria, including from Sen. Susan Collins, who told CNN she “would like to see Special Forces deployed to help rescue these young girls.”
The West has only sent a relatively small number of military officials for now, but their deployment represents a continuation of a strategy that has failed in Nigeria–and it’s the latest example of the “war on terror” penetrating deep into Africa.
Eight troops from U.S. African Command have arrived in Nigeria to assist the Nigerian security forces with intelligence, communications and logistics, though Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has ruled out sending Special Operations forces. In addition, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said yesterday the team included five State Department officials, 10 Pentagon officials who were already in the country and four members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The strategy of sending troops bolsters Nigeria’s overall strategy of using militarized tactics to try to defeat Boko Haram. But recent history shows the folly of such tactics, which are a classic example of how to provoke blowback.
In the late 1990s, Boko Haram found fertile ground in Nigeria’s neglected north, where corruption and police abuse fuel resentment of the government, which is oil-rich but out of touch with many Nigerians. The Islamic group originally began as a hardline anti-state religious movement. It wsa not originally as brutally violent as it is today. A heavy crackdown on the group from Nigerian police fueled its turn to barbaric violence that has killed thousands of Nigerians in recent years.
Two violent disputes with the police–one in December 2003 and one in July 2009–ended with a huge security crackdown on Boko Haram. The leaders of the group at the time were killed. And in July 2009, dozens of suspected members were rounded up and executed without trial, some of them young boys. Though many Boko Haram members fled from the areas in the north they had operated in, they returned in 2010 and began to conduct a campaign of assassinations. That marked the beginning of Boko Haram acting on its desire to avenge the deaths of hundreds of people said to be affiliated with the group. The brutal government response is also likely driving up the number of recruits to the group.
Nigeria’s fight against Boko Haram has been easily swept into larger efforts on the African continent to defeat violent Islamic movements. The U.S. has been pouring money into Nigerian security forces as part of its push to use proxy forces to defeat what they see as Al Qaeda-affiliated forces. The history of those efforts and others, though, has also been a failure.
The same Western powers now taking the lead in helping Nigeria to find the abducted girls are the same powers that have been quick to use force in Africa since 9/11.
The most consequential of these interventions in Africa was the NATO-led bombing campaign of Libya in 2011, cast as a noble effort to save Libyan rebels from the tyrant Muammar Gaddafi. The overthrow of Gaddafi was the easy part. Then came a power vacuum in Libya, complete with competing armed militias and the exodus of militants into other parts of the Sahel in Africa. In 2013, that exodus from Libya helped produce another war, when France launched a military campaign in Mali to dislodge Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb from power in northern Mali. Some of the militants in Mali had streamed across the border with Libya, which became especially porous after the NATO intervention.
The Libya and Mali wars were added to a hodgepodge mix of strategies meant to combat terrorism in Africa, including drone strikes in Somalia, detentions, and sending money and training to security forces in African countries. What they all have in common is a reliance on force to deal with the problem. Nigeria is no different.
But the arms-based approach has only served to fuel more counter-violence, without getting at the roots of the problems that spawn terrorism: poverty, corruption, police abuse and the gap between governments–some of them authoritarian–and their people. The seemingly endless cycle will only continue if the approach to Nigeria’s conflict with Boko Haram stays the same.