U.S. Policy to Counter Nigeria's Boko Haram

Opinion

U.S. Policy to Counter Nigeria's Boko Haram

John Campbell

20 Nov 2014

Nigeria continues to be ravaged by the homegrown violent Islamist group Boko Haram, which has declared a caliphate in the areas under its control in the northeast of the country and begun implementing a harsh version of sharia law.

Amb. John Campbell from the Council on Foreign Relations publishes a timely in-depth report of the plurality of issues facing the nation and offers U.S. policy makers practical short and long-term policy suggestions. An excerpt of the report is below.

The full report is here.

The April 2014 kidnapping of more than 250 schoolgirls from Chibok in northern Nigeria by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram—and the lethargic response of Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan's government—provoked outrage. But the kidnapping is only one of many challenges Nigeria faces. The splintering of political elites, Boko Haram's revolt in the north, persistent ethnic and religious conflict in the country's Middle Belt, the deterioration of the Nigerian army, a weak federal government, unprecedented corruption, and likely divisive national elections in February 2015 with a potential resumption of an insurrection in the oil patch together test Nigeria in ways unprecedented since the 1966–70 civil war.

Nigeria's current challenges politically destabilize West Africa.

The United States cannot be indifferent. Boko Haram poses no security threat to the U.S. homeland, but its attack on Nigeria, and the Abuja response characterized by extensive human rights violations, does challenge U.S. interests in Africa. Nigeria has been a strategic partner and at times a surrogate for the United States in Africa. With 177 million people equally divided between Christians and Muslims, the benefit of Africa's largest oil revenues, and in the past a relatively modern military, Nigeria has had greater heft than any other African country. The national aspiration for democracy survived a generation of military rule and served as an example for other developing countries. But, if the country has been the "giant of Africa," Nigeria's current challenges politically destabilize West Africa, potentially providing a base for jihadist groups hostile to Western interests, fueling a humanitarian crisis, and by example discrediting democratic aspirations elsewhere in Africa.

Upcoming Nigerian elections will shape the country's trajectory. The electoral process—the campaign period, polling, and ballot counting— is likely to be bitter, especially at the local and state levels. Splintered elites are already violently competing for power and appealing to religious and ethnic identities. If Nigeria's civilian government is to forestall an implosion involving Boko Haram and the 2015 elections, and to resume its positive regional role, it needs to end ubiquitous human rights abuses by official entities, orchestrate humanitarian relief to refugees and persons internally dis- placed by fighting in the north, and ensure credible elections that do not exacerbate internal conflict. If it achieves these goals, Nigeria could resume its evolution into a democratic state that abides by the rule of law and pursues a regional leadership role commensurate with its size and supportive of goals shared with the United States.

Unfortunately, the United States and other outsiders have little leverage over the Jonathan government. Nigeria's principal exports and economic drivers—oil and gas—command a ready international market. The country's size gives it an advantage over its neighbors, even in its weak state. Neither the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) nor the African Union (AU)—the relevant security organizations—is expected to pressure the Abuja government, because Nigeria is the largest contributor to their budgets and presides among African states as the continent's leader. The country receives minimal assistance from international donors; U.S. assistance, about $721 million in 2015, paled in comparison with government revenue.

Washington faces hard choices. Enhanced U.S. security cooperation with Abuja against Boko Haram might limit the movement's military activities. Conversely, a visible U.S. military presence risks an anti-Western backlash in the north and across the Sahel, where the government of Jonathan, who is Christian, is suspected of being anti-Muslim. In the run-up to the February 2015 national elections, Washington sup- ports Nigerians working for credible polling in an environment free of violence. But even with its strong financial and diplomatic support, U.S. ability to influence the conduct of Nigeria's elections is limited by the country's enormous size, diversity, and security challenges, not least from Boko Haram.

Nigeria's restoration of a democratic, regional leadership trajectory should be a top Africa policy goal for the Obama administration. As in the past, a restored partnership with Abuja could forestall the need for deeper U.S. involvement in the Sahel when Washington is preoccupied with pressing foreign policy challenges in other regions.

Government human rights abuses drive popular support for Boko Haram.

The Boko Haram insurgency is a direct result of chronic poor governance by Nigeria's federal and state governments, the political marginalization of northeastern Nigeria, and the region's accelerating impoverishment. The insurgency's context is a radical, Salafist Islamic revival that extends beyond the movement's supporters. Government security service human rights abuses drive popular acquiescence or support for Boko Haram. Washington should follow a short-term strategy that presses Abuja to end its gross human rights abuses, conduct credible national elections in 2015, and meet the immediate needs of refugees and persons internally displaced by fighting in the northeast. It should also pursue a longer-term strategy to encourage Abuja to address the roots of northern disillusionment, preserve national unity, and restore Nigeria's trajectory toward democracy and the rule of law.

The following steps should be taken in the short term:

  • Washington should pursue a human rights agenda with Abuja, pressing the Jonathan administration to investigate credible claims of human rights abuses and to prosecute the perpetrators;
  • the Obama administration should pursue a democratic agenda, including its support for credible elections in 2015;
  • the United States should facilitate and support humanitarian assistance in the north; and
  • the Obama administration should strengthen its diplomatic presence by establishing a consulate in Kano, the largest city in northern Nigeria.

The following steps should be taken over the long term:

  • Washington administrations should identify and support individual Nigerians working for human rights and democracy;
  • the United States should revoke the visas held by Nigerians who commit financial crimes or promote political, ethnic, or religious violence; and
  • Washington should encourage Nigerian initiatives to revamp the culture of its military and police.

The full report can be found here.

The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. 

Sign up to receive the Roundup

Sign up to our Religion & Geopolitics Roundup to receive weekly updates with the latest commentary, analysis and news on the role of religion in conflict zones. Sign up here.