TIME Nigeria

Nigeria’s Kidnapped Girls Forgotten Ahead of Election Day

President Goodluck Jonathan is concentrating his energies on getting re-elected in March

It has been nearly one year since Boko Haram militants kidnapped over 270 schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria. And while the terrorist group continues its attacks across Nigeria, the country’s president has been more focused on staying in power after the March 28 elections than on getting the girls back.

Local activists want that to change, demanding that the government make the disappearance of the Chibok girls the top priority. “These rallies is the reason why [the government] remembers,” organizer Funmi Adesanya told TIME’s Africa bureau chief Aryn Baker, “but I don’t think they are really doing anything about it.”

TIME Nigeria

Crowd Kills Girl Suspected to Be Suicide Bomber in Nigeria

(BAUCHI, Nigeria) — A crowd beat to death a teenage girl accused of being a suicide bomber and then set her body ablaze Sunday, according to police and witnesses at a northeastern Nigerian market.

A second suspect, also a teenage girl, was arrested at Muda Lawal, the biggest market in Bauchi city.

A spate of suicide bombings has been blamed on Nigeria’s home-grown Boko Haram Islamic extremist group, which wants to enforce strict Islamic law across Nigeria. The group has threatened to disrupt Nigeria’s March 28 presidential and legislative elections, saying democracy is a corrupt Western concept.

In Bauchi, the two girls aroused suspicion by refusing to be searched when they arrived at the gate to the vegetable market, said yam vendor Mohd Adamu. People overpowered one girl and discovered she had two bottles strapped to her body, he said. They clubbed her to death, put a tired doused in fuel over her head and set it on fire, he said.

It seems doubtful the girl was actually a bomber as she did not detonate any explosives when she was attacked, said Police Deputy Superintendent Mohammad Haruna. He described her as the victim of “mob action carried out by an irate crowd.”

Recently some girls as young as 10 years old have been used to carry explosives that detonated in busy markets and bus stations, raising fears that Boko Haram may be using some of its hundreds of kidnap victims in bomb attacks. It’s unclear whether such girls detonate explosions themselves or whether the bombs are controlled remotely.

President Goodluck Jonathan last week condemned the Boko Haram insurgents for choosing soft targets and said the series of bombings are a response to the Nigerian military’s recent success in seizing back a score of towns that had been in the hands of the extremists for months.

A multinational military force including Nigeria’s neighbors is being formed to stop Boko Haram’s attacks outside Nigeria’s borders.

Some 10,000 people died in Nigeria from Boko Haram’s violence last year, compared to 2,000 in the first four years, according to the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, and some 1.5 million people have been driven from their homes.

 

TIME Nigeria

American Missionary Kidnapped in Nigeria

The kidnapping is likely to have been carried out by a criminal gang

Armed men kidnapped an American missionary from a school in Nigeria and have demanded the equivalent of almost $300,000 for her safe return, Nigerian police said Tuesday. The Rev. Phyllis Sortor, a missionary with the Free Methodist Church in Seattle, was identified by her church as the U.S. citizen abducted from the Hope Academy compound in Kogi state.

A group of five armed men, three of whom had masks over their faces, jumped the walls of the compound and fired shots into the air at 10:30 a.m. local time Monday (4:30 a.m. ET), Kogi Police Commissioner Adeyemi Ogunjemilusi said. Speaking to NBC News…

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME Nigeria

Boko Haram Sends Out Child Suicide Bomber as It Loses Ground to Nigeria

Chadian soldiers on top of a truck, left, speak to Cameroon soldiers, right, standing next to the truck, on the border between Cameroon and Nigeria as they form part of the force to combat regional Islamic extremists force's including Boko Haram, near the town of Gambarou, Nigeria, Feb. 19, 2015.
Edwin Kindzeka Moki—AP Chadian soldiers on top of a truck, left, speak to Cameroon soldiers, right, standing next to the truck, on the border between Cameroon and Nigeria as they form part of the force to combat regional Islamic extremists force's including Boko Haram, near the town of Gambarou, Nigeria, Feb. 19, 2015.

The Nigerian military regains a key town lost to Boko Haram, but the insurgent group stoops to even bloodier tactics

Victory in battle is rarely a straight shot. So it goes in Nigeria, where the fight against the militant Islamist insurgent group, Boko Haram, progresses in fits and starts. Victory one day is eclipsed by defeat the next. On Saturday Feb. 21, Nigeria’s military spokesman tweeted that the army had retaken the border town of Baga after a fierce battle with the group’s fighters.

https://twitter.com/DefenceInfoNG/status/569145288818102272

But even as soldiers continued with the “mopping up” operation, residents elsewhere in the area reported scores of deaths at the hands of Boko Haram militants. And a day later, on Feb. 22, a suicide bomber killed five and wounded dozens in the northeast town of Potiskum, about 210 miles away. Though Boko Haram has yet to claim responsibility for the attack, the devastation was caused by what is rapidly becoming the group’s signature calling card: a female bomber, who, according to witnesses speaking to Reuters, looked to be no more than eight years old.

Though Boko Haram reportedly has enough firepower to successfully raid several Nigerian military garrisons, its ability to wreak terror is just as important in an asymmetric war like this one. United States intelligence officials estimate that Boko Haram has only 4000-6000 “hardcore” fighters, but a succession of attacks across Nigeria’s northeast and across the borders of its neighboring countries has nonetheless demonstrated the group’s seeming ability to be everywhere at once. The Nigerian military has a hard time keeping up, leaving many civilians caught in the middle. Few support Boko Haram, which has left a trail of massacres and abductions as it seeks to impose on the region its interpretation of Islamic law, but even fewer dare stand up to the group without a military to protect them.

Help is on the way: the African Union has pledged 8,750 soldiers, police and humanitarian officials to the fight. Already Nigeria’s neighbors Chad, Niger, and Cameroon, have entered the fray, defeating the insurgents in border areas and denying Boko Haram the sanctuary it once enjoyed. But Nigeria’s military is faced with an uncompromising deadline. National Security Advisor Sambo Dasuki has pledged that Boko Haram will be defeated before the March 28 presidential election, which was postponed from February for security reasons. That gives the army six weeks to do what it hasn’t been able to achieve in the six years since the insurgency launched.

Regaining Baga is a start. Strategically speaking, the fishing town offers little military advantage. Symbolically, it packs a punch. Boko Haram took Baga on January 3, in a surprise raid that sent soldiers tasked with protecting a nearby military garrison fleeing for their lives. Over the course of the next few days Boko Haram methodically rampaged through neighboring villages, killing and burning everything in its path. At the time, local officials estimated that up to 2000 residents had been killed; a government assessment put the number at 150. With access to the area limited and phone coverage all but cut off, it was impossible to establish which number was closer to the truth. Satellite imagery released by Amnesty International a few days later showed widespread devastation that gave credence to the higher count, though it is also possible that many residents fled before Boko Haram arrived.

Still, the discrepancy was largely interpreted as a government effort to downplay the insurgency’s strength, and the military’s failure. Now that Baga has been re-taken, investigators will be able to get closer to the truth of what actually happened. That may be of little comfort to those who lost loved ones and property in the massacre, but in the battle of messaging, it’s a start.

TIME Nigeria

Boko Haram Vows to Disrupt Elections as President Is Deserted by Key Supporter

A boy walks near a banner campaigning for Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan along a street at Campus Square neighborhood in Lagos, Feb. 2, 2015.
Akintunde Akinleye—Reuters A boy walks near a banner campaigning for Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan along a street at Campus Square neighborhood in Lagos, Feb. 2, 2015.

Goodluck Jonathan needs more time to take on Boko Haram and win the election

It’s never a good sign when your political mentor starts publically questioning your decisions as President, particularly if he is the man who laid the path to the presidency in the first place. For weeks Nigeria’s revered former President, Olusegun Obasanjo, had been quietly criticizing his former protégé and current President Goodluck Jonathan’s ability to combat the Boko Haram militant group. But when the Nigerian election commission announced a six-week postponement of elections to allow for a military operation against the insurgents, Obasanjo turned up the volume, publically insinuating that it was a ploy for the President to cement his position in the face of the rising popularity of his rival Muhammadu Buhari before endorsing Buhari in an interview with the Financial Times.

The elections come at a difficult time for Nigeria. Boko Haram has increased its attacks, and its terrain, over the past few months, expanding into neighboring Chad, Niger and Cameroon and raising fears for the stability of Africa’s biggest economy and most populous nation. Boko Haram has killed an estimated 13,000 Nigerians, and has abducted more than 1,000 others, including 257 schoolgirls in April. Despite a promised military operation, Nigeria’s ongoing political squabbling continues to prevent a unified national response. Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau has pledged to disrupt the polls, laying the groundwork for a fraught election season.

It was really only a matter of time before the divorce between Jonathan and Obasanjo became final. No one, however, expected it to be quite so theatrical. In front of a gathering of journalists and members of the ruling People’s Democratic Party, Obasanjo handed his membership card to a colleague to be torn up and announced his resignation from the party he helped found in 1999, when he became the country’s first post-dictatorship President. “Henceforth I will only be a Nigerian. I am ready to work with anybody regardless of his or her political affiliation,” he said in a statement that ran in national newspapers on Tuesday. That small act of petulance is likely to have far-reaching consequences for Jonathan’s campaign for re-election, already under strain from wide-ranging accusations of incompetence and weakness. While Obasanjo declared that he would not join the opposition, many will interpret it as an endorsement for the party of Buhari.

Shekau pledged to disrupt the elections “at any cost” also on Tuesday in a 15-minute video released via the group’s new Twitter account. “This election will not be held even if we are dead,” he vowed, speaking in the Hausa language of northern Nigeria. As if to prove his point, two suicide attacks killed at least 38 people on the same day the video was released. Two days before, on Feb. 15, a female suicide bomber killed at least 10 passersby in a market, also in the country’s northeast.

The number of Boko Haram attacks has increased dramatically since the announcement of the postponement of the elections, which were slated for Feb. 15. As a result, few Nigerians believe the leadership’s assurances that the insurgency will be defeated in time to allow residents of the northeast, where it is strongest, to vote. “Even if the ongoing military operations smash all the insurgents’ camps, as promised, Boko Haram has shown itself to be highly mobile, tactically adaptable and considerably resilient,” says Nnamdi Obasi, Nigeria researcher for the International Crisis Group. “So it is doubtful that the government will achieve an environment sufficiently secure for displaced persons to return home and for the electoral agency to conduct polls all over the northeast on March 28.”

The governments of Chad, Niger and Cameroon have promised to lend a hand by sending troops, but they are finding themselves bogged down with combatting Boko Haram on home turf. Shekau, in previous videos, pledged to attack any country that went after Boko Haram. He has followed through, threatening leaders by name in his video broadcasts, and sending forces and suicide bombers across the borders of all three countries. Cameroon’s army announced on Feb. 17 that it had killed 86 Boko Haram fighters and detained a further 1,000 suspected supporters. On the same day, Niger’s government claimed to have killed 200 rebels, detained 160 supporters, and averted a suicide bomb attack in the town of Diffa. Such assertions are difficult to corroborate. If true, they are an alarming indication of Boko Haram’s reach and strength. Obasanjo may have criticized Jonathan’s inability to manage Boko Haram, but if the combined forces of Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon can’t defeat the insurgency with international support, then his successor may also find it difficult.

TIME conflict

Boko Haram Is Hardly a New Phenomenon in Nigeria

Nigerian local hunters 'vigilantes' to fight against Boko Haram
Anadolu Agency—Getty Images A local hunter armed with a gun is seen on a pick up truck in Yola city of Adamawa State in Nigeria before he moves to the border region between Nigeria and Cameroon to support the Nigerian army in fighting with Boko Haram militants on Dec. 06, 2014.

The surprise is it’s in formal rebellion against western education its members never received

History News Network

This post is in partnership with the History News Network, the website that puts the news into historical perspective. The article below was originally published at HNN.

The raging Boko Haram terrorist campaign poses the most potent existential threat to Nigeria since the country emerged out of civil war in 1970. Almost daily, insurgents fired up by a strange concoction of Islamist ideology and ascetic inclinations rampage through villages in the Nigerian northeast, killing, burning, and maiming. The Nigerian army’s law-and-order approach is foundering, and the insurgency waxes stronger, spreading to new territories within Nigeria and in the neighboring countries of Cameroon, Chad, and Niger.

How did it come to this, and how can one situate Boko Haram in a longer historical tapestry of religious revivalism, societal convulsion, social marginality, and colonialism in this region of Nigeria? To understand Boko Haram, one must detour to precolonial and colonial histories of Northern Nigeria and locate the coextensive influences of pre-colonial Islamism and British colonial education policy.

An Ironic Product of Western Educational Lag

Translated from Hausa, Boko Haram means Western education is forbidden. The name references the opposition of the group to Western education and other artifacts of Western modernity. To understand this theological rejection of Western education, one must probe how the sociological currents that produced Boko Haram are ironically rooted in a history of Western education, or lack thereof, in Northern Nigeria.

Northern Nigeria became a British Protectorate in 1900 and colonial control was consolidated between then and 1907. Wary of alienating Muslim elites whom the colonizers were cultivating as allies in their rule, British colonial authorities decreed a ban on Christian missionary activities in the Muslim emirates, cutting off these regions from the missionary educational enterprise, the major instrument for the spread of Western education in much of colonial Nigeria and Africa.

The spread of Western education in the emirates was further hampered by another factor: the widespread suspicion that Western education was a carrier of un-Islamic ideas. Some emirs told Frederick Lugard, the first British governor of Northern Nigeria, that they didn’t want missionary educators in their domains because they feared that the missionaries would try to convert their Muslim subjects to Christianity.

This attitude was tempered over time by a realization on the part of some of the colony’s aristocrats and regular colonial subjects that secular education was important to socioeconomic mobility in colonial society. But colonial authorities ignored this attitudinal shift and did not build many schools in Northern Nigeria because of a racist ideology that questioned the value of liberal (as opposed to vocational) Western education for African “natives.” Specifically, British colonial officials in the North believed that liberal education would corrupt Northern Nigerians, turning them into agitators for rights in colonial society like it had purportedly done to the indigenous intelligentsia of Southern Nigeria. The British despised members of this embryonic indigenous elite with a passion and described them in colonial sources in derogatory terms as confused, troublesome, undignified black Englishmen wannabes. Frederick Lugard and other colonial officials were determined that the Northern, Muslim-majority half of the country would not be afflicted with this dangerous virus of educational modernization.

The foundation of the educational lag in the Muslim-majority states of postcolonial Northern Nigeria was thus laid by colonial policy, which was founded on the theory that a rapid expansion of Western education would damage the minds of benighted “native” Muslims and turn them against colonization.

This foundational problem has been compounded over the years by the inattention of postcolonial governments in the northeastern and northwestern states to education and, more recently, by a resurgence of negative attitudes to Western education, itself a product of the influx into Northern Nigeria of global Islamist ideologies denouncing or devaluing secular education as a source of societal moral degeneration, a contention eerily reminiscent of the claims of old Islamic revival movements in the region who similarly lashed out at colonial modernity and boko, or secular Western education.

The product of this Western educational lag in the northeast is the vast army of youths who, lacking credentialed Western education, are marginal in Nigeria’s secular economy and are thus available for Boko Haram to mobilize with temporal and spiritual promises of relevance.

Homegrown Islamist Dissidence

In addition to the British inattention to Western education in the Muslim majority areas of colonial Northern Nigeria, the Muslim rulers of these regions, inheritors of centuries old Islamic traditions and descendants of Muslim reformers of the early nineteenth century Sokoto Caliphate, feared that Western education would undermine their authority, dishonor the legacy of this history of Muslim revival, and spread practices offensive to widely held beliefs about Muslim piety.

A similar invocation of a romanticized Muslim past and nostalgia for prior Muslim dissidence has become part of Boko Haram’s rhetorical repertoire. In a recent video, the group showed archive footage of a battle between British soldiers of conquest and forces of the Sokoto Caliphate at the turn of the 20th century, suggesting that Boko Haram propagandists equate their struggle with the earlier struggle of the Sokoto Caliphate against British colonialism and its secular institutions.

Boko Haram has often invoked the Islamic Umma and caliphate founded by the Fulani jihad of Othman dan Fodio in the first decade of the nineteenth century in Hausaland as a model for its ambitions. Moreover, the group seems to have adopted the military tactics of the Jihadists of old. Like the Fulani jihadists, Boko Haram would march into a community in two columns. One would wait in the rear of the community while the other would attack from the front. Panicky villagers seeking escape would be slaughtered or captured by the rear column. This was a tactic that had been perfected by the Fulani jihadists as they raided non-Muslim communities for slaves and treasure throughout the nineteenth century.

Boko Haram belongs in a long line of Islamic insurgencies in the area. In the Sokoto caliphate, there were the Digawa, the Salihawa, the Isawa, and other sects with diverse doctrines considered heretical by the mainstream Sunni Umma. The Isawa in particular ran egregiously afoul of the existing theological consensus of the caliphate by recognizing the messianic status of Jesus and integrating that belief into their Muslim devotions.

Like Boko Haram, these groups criticized the existing Islamic order of the nineteenth century, isolated themselves, and espoused doctrines unfamiliar to the normative Sunni theologies of the caliphate. Unlike Boko Haram they were small, largely non-violent, and fizzled out over time.

In colonial times (1900-1960), some of the pre-colonial Islamic insurgent groups persisted, some coalescing into movements resistant to both the British and the emirate system of traditional and religious leadership. The Mahdist movement, an apocalyptic sect built around the idea of a coming messiah (or the Mahdi) and an end-of-time showdown between him and the forces of oppression, emerged as a fulcrum of opposition to the British colonial conquest in the first decade of the twentieth century. The British crushed the last of these major Mahdist uprisings in the village of Satiru in February 1906 and the surviving Mahdists fled to safety in different directions — to Kano, Yola, and as far as modern Sudan.

The British continued to sporadically face smaller incarnations of earlier Islamist revolts in the period of colonial rule. Some of these movements began to articulate a clear message against Christians (Nasara), a category represented in their expedient theology by the British colonialists, and against modernity, represented by British systems of rule, colonial technologies, Western education, and Muslims who adopted them.

Confronted by a changing world marked by the erosion of traditional ways of life and by a dizzying cocktail of modern goods and practices that they associated with Christian British colonizers, some Muslims responded by adopting a new form of piety designed to provoke divine solutions to what they saw as a Christian modernist invasion. Subsequent Islamist insurgent groups in Northern Nigeria have sustained this angst against modernity (zamani), which is perceived as a threat to the vision of a just, moral Islamic society. The resentment is often extended to Christians who purportedly embody this modernity, and to Muslims who allegedly imitate it or allow it to infect their Muslim devotion.

There is thus a long precedent for homegrown Islamic dissidence in Northern Nigeria. The most recognizable postcolonial manifestation of this history of insurgent Islamic revival, especially in the northeast, is the Y’antatsine movement, an Islamist Luddite sect that flourished intermittently in the northwest and northeast between 1980 and 1985. Like Boko Haram, the group isolated itself, received both persecution and patronage from some politically powerful Muslims, and then turned violent when clashes between its members and mainstream Muslims became frequent and its alternative Islamic community, or Tsangaya, was attacked by the secular authorities of the state.

Yet Boko Haram differs in several respects from Y’antatsine. The latter was a largely urban movement with easily identifiable neighborhoods such as Yan Awaki in Kano and Bulunkutu in Maiduguri. Conversely, Boko Haram is now largely a rural insurgency, although it has a presence in both rural and urban areas. Yantatsine was numerically much smaller than Boko Haram.

Y’antatsine was not a radical territorial movement intent on capturing, holding, and governing territory as part of an imagined theocratic state or caliphate; Boko Haram is. Boko Haram boasts of its allegiance and connections to global networks of jihad and Islamism, which it references in solidarity in its videos. Y’antatsine was a wholly homegrown Islamist movement with no known connections to foreign Islamist currents.

The two parallel histories of colonial educational policy and Islamic dissidence constitute the premise upon which understandings of Boko Haram’s ideology and rampage should be constructed. Yet, this historical connection alone cannot explain Boko Haram, for the group is both connected to and removed from this history. Its theological corpus is more expansive and its methods for realizing its goals more violent than previous insurgencies.

Moses E. Ochonu is Associate Professor of African History at Vanderbilt University. His most recent books are “Colonialism by Proxy: Hausa Imperial Agents and Middle Belt Consciousness in Nigeria” (2014), and “Africa in Fragments: Essays on Nigeria, Africa, and Global Africanity” (2014).

TIME Nigeria

Boko Haram Issues New Threat Against Niger, Chad

Chadian soldiers participate in the opening ceremony of Flintlock 2015, an exercise organized by the US military in Ndjamena
Emmanuel Braun—Reuters Chadian soldiers participate in the opening ceremony of Flintlock 2015, an exercise organized by the U.S. military in Ndjamena on Feb. 16, 2015

Boko Haram issues warning it is ready to launch suicide bombings in Chad and Niger

(YAOUNDE, Cameroon) — The Nigeria-based extremist group Boko Haram on Monday threatened neighboring countries Niger and Chad, warning the fighters were prepared to carry out suicide bombings in the countries sending troops to help fight the militants.

The warning came as leaders from Niger and other countries in the region gathered in Cameroon’s capital to finalize plans for a joint offensive against the militants who have stepped up their attacks in recent weeks.

In a translation published by the SITE Intelligence Group, Boko Haram sharply criticized Niger for joining the effort and said the country was being dragged into a “swamp of darkness.” Over the last 10 days, Boko Haram fighters have repeatedly struck the town of Diffa but not the capital.

“If you insist on continuing the aggression and the coalition with the government of Chad, then we give you glad tidings that the land of Niger is easier than the land of Nigeria and moving the war to the depth of your cities will be the first reaction toward any aggression that occurs after this statement,” it said, according to SITE’s transcript.

A multinational force to fight Boko Haram is expected to be formally launched in coming weeks. Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Benin initially pledged to help Nigeria. On Monday, Burundi and Central African Republic also agreed to contribute troops to fight the militant group.

The Islamic extremist group has fought a five-year insurgency against Nigeria’s government, leaving 10,000 people dead last year alone. The violence has forced some 157,000 people to seek refuge in Niger, while 40,000 others have gone to Cameroon and 17,000 are in Chad, the U.N. said. Almost 1 million Nigerians are internally displaced, according to the country’s own statistics.

On Monday, leaders in Central Africa said that 10 member states had agreed to contribute most of the $100 million needed to combat Boko Haram. They did not state how much had been raised nor how much is remaining despite calling for the creation of an emergency fund to bridge the difference.

TIME Nigeria

Teenage Girl Kills 16 in Suicide Bombing in Northeast Nigeria

Boko Haram may be responsible

A teenage girl detonated a suicide bomb in a bus station in northeast Nigeria Sunday, killing 16 people, most of them children.

Although nobody has yet taken responsibility for the attack, it closely resembles others carried out by Islamist extremist group Boko Haram, which has frequently used young girls as suicide bombers in the past. The bomber detonated the bomb at the bus station in Damaturu, the capital of the Yobe state, at around 1 p.m. Many of the victims were children who had been selling peanuts or begging near the bus station, the Associated Press reports, and 30 other people were injured. Witnesses said the bomber was around 16 years old.

More: Nigeria’s Military Quails When Faced with Boko Haram

Boko Haram, which is fighting for Islamic rule in Nigeria, has been responsible for over 100,000 deaths last year and many abductions, including the high-profile kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls from a secondary school in Chibok.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: February 11

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Syria’s own ‘Monuments Men’ are trying to stop antiquities from becoming looted to finance terrorism.

By Joe Parkinson, Ayla Albayrak and Duncan Mavin in the Wall Street Journal

2. Scientists have combined a bionic leaf with a bioengineered bacteria to convert solar energy into liquid fuel.

By Elizabeth Cooney at Harvard Medical School

3. A dozen states are using a smart data center to keep voter information up to date. Meet ERIC.

By the Pew Charitable Trusts on YouTube

4. Deciding to embrace big data is a lot easier than changing your culture to use it well.

By Matt Asay in ReadWrite

5. Fighting malaria is going to take more than just nets.

By Utibe Effiong and Lauretta Ovadje with Andrew Maynard in the Conversation

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Nigeria

Nigeria’s Military Quails When Faced With Boko Haram

Nigeria's once vaunted military has been hollowed out by corruption, bad leadership, and insufficient training, leaving it vulnerable to Boko Haram's advance

The claims, like the man who made them, were outsize: Nigeria’s military, says National Security Advisor Sambo Dasuki, would crush the Boko Haram insurgency that has bedeviled the country for the past six years, in six weeks. “All known Boko Haram camps would be taken out” by March 28, he told reporters in Abuja on Monday. Just in time for the country’s presidential election, which was rescheduled from its original Feb. 14 date on Saturday.

Given that the Boko Haram insurgency killed more than 10,000 last year, has sent an estimated 1.5 million fleeing for their lives, and now controls a swath of northeastern Nigeria the size of Costa Rica, Dasuki did allow himself a little wiggle room. Even if total annihilation was not, in fact, achieved, he conceded, “The situation would surely be conducive enough for elections.” He would do well to backtrack. Nigeria’s military has so far proved incapable of containing Boko Haram, and there is little to indicate that anything has changed. The African Union pledged 8,700 troops to the fight over the weekend, and on Monday the neighboring country of Niger voted to send in reinforcements as well. That Nigeria’s army needs help dealing with what even its own leaders call a rag-tag militia is a sobering indictment of an institution that was once considered the powerhouse of African peacekeeping. In 2003 the Nigerian army helped defeat the forces of Liberia’s bloodthirsty warlord Charles Taylor. Now it can’t even locate 219 schoolgirls from Chibok that were kidnapped by Boko Haram in April. What happened?

Nigeria’s military has been in decline for the past 16 years, says J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Washington D.C.- based Atlantic Council, ever since the country moved from a military dictatorship to a democracy in 1999. The intervening years have seen the country’s armed forces hollowed out by a combination of poor leadership, graft, misdirected staff training and a succession of civilian governments so worried about another coup that they have starved the armed forces of key resources.

To a certain extent, part of the issue is size. The country may have a 90,000 strong standing army, says Pham, but not all of them are soldiers. Nurses, medics, administration personnel and military police don’t fight, “so the actual number of combat ready troops is much lower.” Add to the fact that some 3,000 troops are currently serving in United Nations peacekeeping missions around the world, and the number left is “inadequate for the task of defending a country the size of Nigeria,” with its population of 174 million and a history of local insurgencies.

A bigger issue is fraud, says former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell, who now runs the Nigeria Security Tracker for the Council on Foreign Relations. Ammunition and arms are budgeted and paid for, but they don’t always reach the front lines, either because they are diverted to the black market, or because the money actually went into a procurer’s pocket. Disgruntled soldiers recently spoke to CNN, describing how they are sent out to fight militants armed with RPGs while they only have dozens of bullets each. The soldiers complained that they had to cover medical expenses for wounds received in battle, and that the spouses of dead soldiers were only granted a minimal stipend. “Nigeria’s annual military budget is somewhere between five and six billion dollars,” says Campbell. “Yet we have credible reports of soldiers being sent into combat with no bullets. The army is plagued by corruption, incompetence and bad morale.”

Military spokesman Maj. Gen Chris Olukolade argues that accounts of insufficient arms and ammunition are an exaggeration. Concern for civilian casualties, he says, has limited the effectiveness of soldiers in an asymmetric battle where the militants routinely take human shields. Nigerians don’t appreciate the costs of war, he says, so it is easy to blame the military’s failures on corruption when there are other factors at play. As is often the case, there is no firm evidence of graft, but Pham notes that there is enough anecdotal evidence to make a case. He cites Nigeria’s purchase of Israeli-made surveillance drones a few years ago. The drones were paid for and delivered, but despite budget allocations for their maintenance and upkeep, the drones were inoperable last spring, when they could have been used to locate the missing Chibok schoolgirls. Instead U.S. and British drones had to be flown in to do reconnaissance. It may not be a smoking gun, says Pham, but it’s enough to start asking hard questions.

As Olukolade inadvertently points out, Nigeria’s armed forces aren’t particularly well trained in counter-insurgency. They are a conventional army faced with an unconventional force that cares little for collateral damage. Nigeria’s army has a bad record of human rights abuses as well, according to Human Rights Watch. Unlike the militants they are fighting, they have to at least make an effort to do the right thing, says Olukolade in a wrong-footed attempt to explain the military’s limitations. “We are aware we are being watched, and are accountable, and that has affected the speed, the kind of swift actions we want to take against [Boko Haram]. We are constantly being put under check, and that has put a check on how far we can go in fighting back.”

Pham, who has worked in West Africa for over a decade, agrees that the Nigerian military’s training is not adequate for the job at hand. The resource-starved, post-dictatorship army often found that the best outlet for attention was U.N. peacekeeping deployments. As a result, he says, officers at Nigerian staff colleges focused more on courses that could get them the coveted U.N. Department of Peacekeeping certification, rather than on tactical and strategic decision-making. “They are trained to think like peace keeping bureaucrats,” says Pham. “So when you throw someone trained in peacekeeping into a war-fighting situation, they are way out of their depths.”

That has been made abundantly clear in the case of Boko Haram, which has continued to make advances in the region even as U.S. officials estimate that its total size is between 4,000 and 6,000 fighters. The group’s recent expansion into Niger and Cameroon has regional leaders up in arms, and ready to fight. Pham says that the extra 8,700 African Union troops will make a good hammer to the Nigerian military’s anvil, but whether or not they will prove successful by March 28, is unclear.

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau, no stranger to outsize pronouncements himself, scoffs at the new military alliance. “Amass all your weapons and face us,” he taunted in a 28-minute speech in Arabic broadcast on YouTube. “You send 7000 troops? Why don’t you send seven million? By Allah, it is small. We can seize them one by one.”

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