Ex-Envoy Sounded Alarm on Nigeria Long Before #BringBackOurGirls

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This spring, as news of the abduction of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls by the radical Islamic group Boko Haram spread throughout the world, many Americans were riveted by the sensational story and finally woke up to the carnage that has bedeviled Africa’s most populous country for years.

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Photo: Council on Foreign Relations

Eventually, every major U.S. news network covered the brazenly frightening kidnapping and a new hashtag, #BringBackOurGirls, exploded across social media, attracting the attention of celebrities, members of Congress and even first lady Michelle Obama.

Fast forward three months.

The Nigerian schoolgirls — abducted in protest of their “Western” education and threatened to be sold off for as little as $12 — are still missing. Nigerian officials have issued conflicting accounts on efforts to rescue the girls, only reinforcing impressions of the government’s impotence and incompetence.

Meanwhile, Boko Haram, in its ongoing campaign to impose strict Islamic Sharia law on the country, has escalated its murderous rampages, slaughtering hundreds in early June after its members posed as a Nigerian military unit sent to protect villagers. Reports have also surfaced of at least two other mass kidnappings of girls (and boys) since April. Other spectacular attacks have reached deep into the capital of Abuja, far from the group’s stomping ground in the northeast. In all, Boko Haram has killed at least 4,000 people in the last four years, Christians and Muslims alike, and driven over half a million more from their homes.

Boko Haram’s reign of terror no longer dominates global newscasts, but American officials and African experts continue to pay close attention to the Islamic group that threatens the stability of Africa’s largest economy.

John Campbell, who served as U.S. ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007, is among the world’s foremost experts on Nigeria and has been sounding the alarm about its problems for years. Campbell’s 2010 book “Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink,” reprinted last year, explores the country’s precarious political state, as well as the radical Islamic violence plaguing the country’s northern sections. Now a senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, Campbell told The Diplomat in an interview at CFR’s downtown office that Boko Haram wants to create a breakaway Islamic state in the religiously mixed country of 170 million people where Muslims make up the majority in the north while Christians dominate the south.

Although Boko Haram — whose name, loosely translated from the Hausa dialect, means “Western education is forbidden” — is comprised of Islamic radicals, its agenda is different than other anti-Western jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda or the Taliban. In fact, some experts say the highly splintered group is inspired as much by opportunistic banditry and local grievances as it is by religious ideology.

“Boko Haram is a product of uniquely Nigerian factors and its focus is on the destruction of the Nigerian government,” Campbell explained. “It doesn’t have an international focus and it is not part of an international jihad. But its rhetoric is becoming increasingly anti-American, particularly as we are more and more associated with the Jonathan government.”

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has drawn intense criticism for his handling of the crisis. He refused to acknowledge the schoolgirl kidnappings for weeks (while his wife ordered the arrest of protesters pleading for the girls’ return) — a symptom of the president’s longstanding reluctance to forcefully confront Boko Haram.

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Photo: UN Photo
A rally in Lagos calls for the return of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls abducted in April by the extremist group Boko Haram, which has terrorized northern Nigeria in its campaign to impose strict Islamic Sharia law on the country.

That reticence stems in part from the country’s delicate, ethnically dictated political balance. The presidency traditionally alternates between a Christian and a Muslim to keep religious rivalries in check. Jonathan, a Christian southerner, took power in 2010 after the death of his Muslim predecessor. Some say he’s breaking this informal gentleman’s agreement by running for re-election in 2015.

As a result, even though he declared a state of emergency in the north, Jonathan has seemed hesitant to wage open war against Boko Haram, perhaps for fear of alienating the region’s Muslim majority. Some segments of Nigeria’s security forces, whose political loyalties are dubious, may even want to see Jonathan fail.

Whatever the case, the military’s reputation is not much better than the president’s. After the schoolgirl kidnappings, reports surfaced that the military knew about the attack in advance but did nothing to stop it. Other news reports indicate that some members have provided arms and information to Boko Haram. The Nigerian armed forces have long been criticized for being too disorganized, disinterested, ill equipped and corrupt to confront the extremist group. Some blame the military’s heavy-handed campaign of retribution, including arbitrary detentions and “disappearances,” for fueling the insurgency in the north.

This record of human rights abuses has kept the United States from cooperating with Nigeria’s army more closely in the past. But the recent violence seems to have changed the calculus. President Obama has deployed a group of U.S. officials to aid in the search for the missing schoolgirls, along with drones to patrol northeastern Nigeria, a move Campbell likened to searching for a needle in a haystack.

“Don’t hold your breath on what surveillance cameras can actually find,” he warned of the heavily forested terrain. “The territory involved is larger than all the New England states combined.”

And despite the global outrage, Campbell said the world’s last remaining superpower is highly unlikely to send American troops to Nigeria.

“Can you imagine the level of support for that after Afghanistan or Iraq?” he asked, instead suggesting that the United States engage in intelligence sharing and military training.

“What I would like to do is try to build [support] for targeted humanitarian assistance in the north. The number of internally displaced citizens is very large. A governor of a northern state told me he had 2 million of them in his state. Now that would be an extremely soft number but clearly there are a lot of displaced citizens,” Campbell said.

“We are quite good at humanitarian assistance through medicine, and in terms of countering the narrative that the United States is at war with Islam, those bags of beans that say, ‘These are a gift from the U.S.,’ that helps and we’re good at it.”

Nigeria could use the help. Even though it recently overtook South Africa as the continent’s largest economy after a statistical re-evaluation, Nigeria has been chronically mismanaged since its independence in 1960. It has failed to spread its oil windfall to the bulk of its people, notably in the undeveloped north. In fact, poverty has actually increased despite steady GDP growth, with more than 60 percent of the population living on less than $1 dollar a day as of 2010. Boko Haram gained a foothold by denouncing the rampant corruption that has fueled resentment in the north, where male unemployment exceeds 50 percent.

The Obama administration has no intention of sending boots into this cauldron of economic disparity and ethnic strife. Likewise, President Jonathan refuses to consider foreign troops on his soil.

But some very influential Americans contend more should be done.

“If they knew where they were, I certainly would send in U.S. troops to rescue them, in a New York minute, without permission of the host country,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said shortly after the girls were abducted.

That prompted a sharp rebuke from Nigeria’s ambassador in Washington, Adebowale Ibidapo Adefuye, who advised McCain’s “well-paid staff to brief him properly on Nigeria and accord our country as well as the office of the president the respect they deserve.”

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UN Photo / Mark Garten
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan holds a press conference at U.N. headquarters in New York in 2011. Some Nigerians have criticized Jonathan for what they say is a weak response to the barrage of terrorist attacks perpetrated by Boko Haram in recent years.

Hillary Clinton has also come under fire because as secretary of state, she refused to place Boko Haram on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations after the group bombed the U.N. headquarters in Abuja in 2011.

But Johnnie Carson, assistant secretary for African affairs at the time, defended the decision, saying such a listing would’ve conferred legitimacy on Boko Haram, possibly sparked retaliation against Western interests, and diverted attention from the homegrown nature of the group’s complaints.

The State Department did eventually list Boko Haram and an offshoot group as terrorist organizations under John Kerry. The listing allows Washington to freeze members’ assets, impose travel bans and prohibit Americans from offering them material support.

Campbell said the criticism of Clinton was unwarranted and that he still opposes the listing, which has done little to quell the violence thus far.

“It was not remotely justified,” Campbell said. “I along with some 20 others who watch Nigeria quite closely sent a letter to Secretary Clinton that Boko Haram not be so designated. The reasons we advanced are still every bit as relevant now as they were then. It’s water over the dam … but I continue to think the designation is a mistake and in the future what it may do is deprive us of a diplomatic instrument.

“The ability of Americans out of government to enter into any kind of dialogue with some part of Boko Haram is depriving us of a potential tool,” Campbell said. “Officially that [listing] made sense, but there are times when it is useful for private American citizens to be able to talk to these people.”

Campbell said there are other reasons why the designation is counterproductive.

“Its primary provisions are almost entirely irrelevant,” he argued. “It denies visas to members of the group. Boko Haramites are hardly lining up at embassies to get visas to come to the United States. It also blocks the transfer of assets from the U.S. to the designated organization. Boko Haram doesn’t have any assets in the United States. The Nigerian-American community in the U.S. is overwhelmingly southern and Christian, so it’s not going to be sending remittances to Boko Haram. It’s irrelevant, but it makes people feel good.

“It is extremely limited in scope,” Campbell added. “It was originally designed for Middle Eastern groups like Hamas and that just doesn’t fit.”

The former diplomat said it’s important to distinguish between Boko Haram and other Islamic terrorist groups.

“They use the same rhetoric and they have essentially the same abstract goal, which is the achievement of God’s kingdom on earth through justice for the poor by means of Sharia,” Campbell said. “The difference is al-Qaeda in its various iterations is part of an international movement with an international focus and the U.S. is the great Satan.

“Boko Haram’s focus is on Nigeria but that could change the more we are associated with the Jonathan government’s struggle against them,” Campbell added.

The group has long viewed American values as corrupting influences, in particular education but also democracy, which it considers un-Islamic.

“The syllogism works this way,” Campbell explained. “Western education promotes secularism. Secularism is a foundation of the Nigerian state. The Nigerian state is utterly corrupt and exploits the poor, therefore the Nigerian state is anti-Islamic and so the destruction of Western education is an Islamic goal for which any means is justified, including slitting the throats of 59 adolescent boys or kidnapping 200 girls,” he said, referring to a February ambush on a boarding school in which the male students were massacred. In that attack, the girls were spared and told to leave school and get husbands. A few months later, another set of girls was not so lucky.

“It’s perfectly logical — the girls were brought together to take high school exams,” Campbell said of the April kidnappings. “That’s Western education.”

Some observers say the source of Boko Haram’s rage — education — could also be its downfall, if the government addressed the marginalization that has made the north fertile recruiting ground for the group. Isobel Coleman and Sigrid von Wendel, writing in Foreign Affairs, point out that despite its oil wealth, Nigeria has the “ignominious distinction of spending less on education as a percentage of [gross national income] than every other nation on earth, except Myanmar.”

“Abuja has long relied on indiscriminate force to fight Boko Haram, which has only resulted in massive civilian casualties, fueled popular distrust of government forces, and left vulnerable villagers feeling trapped between radical extremists who favor no-holds-barred violence and an ineffective, even disinterested government that is also willing to resort to brutality,” they wrote, urging the government to tackle underlying socio-economic issues such as unemployment, illiteracy and insecurity. 

Campbell said the brazen kidnapping is a testament to Boko Haram’s support in northern Nigeria — a popularity that is often downplayed by the government — as well as its relative sophistication.

“You’re talking about more than 200 girls all dressed uniformly,” he pointed out. “That means Boko Haram has the ability to move around more than 200 girls, dress them, feed them and provide some kind of shelter. This implies a logistical and support train, which is more than a bunch of thugs running around,” he said, noting that they had access to military uniforms and transport for the girls.

Boko Haram’s ability to blend into the population may also be hampering efforts to rescue the girls, who may have been broken up into smaller groups.

Campbell said that Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram’s leader, has shown signs of political savvy, despite his out-of-touch rants and doubts over how much control he exerts over Boko Haram’s disparate cells.

“Shekau knows how to push buttons. What he is now saying is, ‘You can have your girls back if you release all of our operatives that are in jail,’” Campbell said. “No government can really do that, but suddenly he seems, if not reasonable, then he is at least opening up an avenue of hope. It’s quite clever. He knows exactly what he is doing.”

But while Shekau may know how to push political buttons, there is no indication Boko Haram is prepared to govern.

“They seek the destruction of the Nigerian state and its replacement by a purely Islamic state,” Campbell said. “They are a movement; they are not a political group. Their goal is not a political program; it’s a kind of religious aspiration.

“They don’t have 12-point program to address poverty in the north,” Campbell continued. “It’s all about God. That is one of the reasons they are so very difficult to deal with. You can’t buy them off, which is the traditional way of doing things.”


About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 31, 2014