Nigeria: West  'rescue' may ignite entire region

Nigerian protesters carry signs as they attend a rally in Lagos last week, demanding the release of the more than 200 schoolgirls abducted in the remote village of Chibok. (Reuters)

Nigerian protesters carry signs as they attend a rally in Lagos last week, demanding the release of the more than 200 schoolgirls abducted in the remote village of Chibok. (Reuters)

President Goodluck Jonathan’s acceptance of foreign aid to track down the more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped in northeastern Nigeria more than a month ago is seen as opening up new possibilities for involvement by the United States, France and the United Kingdom in the region.

But a new anti-terror narrative could play into the hands of extremists, commentators say. A summit of heads of state has been convened by French president François Hollande, to take place in Paris on Saturday, to discuss the fight against the Islamist sect Boko Haram, which is holding the girls hostage.

Many Nigerians welcome the help. They blame the government for turning a blind eye to the kidnapping and for not being able to protect civilians against the terror threat that has cost thousands of lives, mostly in northern Nigeria. 

“Boko Haram has committed atrocities since 2009, but the response from the government has been grossly inadequate,” said Dr Samuel Obadiah from the Centre for Conflict Management and Peace Studies at the University of Jos in central Nigeria. “Nigerians know that the US experience can help us,” he said, speaking to the Mail & Guardian from Jos.

In a newspaper editorial, the daily Vanguard of Nigeria said: “We welcome this show of support for Nigeria by the entire people of the world.
We appreciate the offer to assist in the rescue mission, and ultimately the elimination of the threats to our nation by the insurgents.”

The head of the US African Command (Africom), General David Rodriguez, flew to Nigeria on Monday to speak about US assistance to find the girls. Earlier this week the US was reportedly already flying manned surveillance aircraft over the country and both France and the US now have teams of intelligence experts in Nigeria. At this stage, there is no talk of a rescue operation.

Jonathan was put on the spot by world leaders at the World Economic Forum (WEF) summit in the Nigerian capital Abuja last week – an event that was supposed to celebrate Nigeria’s newfound status as Africa’s biggest economy, following the rebasing of its GDP.

Instead, countrywide protests and the successful #BringBackOurGirls Twitter campaign, which has seen over three million retweets, put the Boko Haram terror threat on top of the agenda. Several countries, including China, Israel and even Belgium, which has offered to send a mobile clinic once the girls get back, have offered their help. Protest marches to urge the Nigerian government to find the girls were also held in the US, the UK and South Africa.

Not good for Africa
Anton du Plessis, managing director of the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, who was a panellist at the WEF summit in Abuja last week, believes there is a danger in creating the impression that Nigeria is only now taking the kidnapping of the girls seriously, because of Western pressure.

“I don’t think it is good for Africa,” he said this week. “It is not good for Nigeria. By putting the US, UK and France at the head of a new campaign to stamp out Boko Haram is going to fit the narrative that they have been trying to create of fighting some kind of global jihad. This is an African problem.”

Du Plessis said a new “war on terror” narrative could place too much emphasis on the Muslim-Christian divide in Nigeria. “We must not forget about the damage done by the war on terror narrative in Africa. We are just now recovering from it.”

Some commentators in Nigeria have echoed these fears. Writing in the Punch newspaper, commentator Niyi Akinnaso said Jonathan knows the kidnapping of the girls was “one foot-dragging too many”. “It is a shame that the international community has taken the bold initiative from our president to find the girls. One can only hope that he will not abdicate the responsibility of co-ordinating the efforts to some foreign power or organisation.”

Meanwhile, the African Union and regional organisations such as the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) have been almost completely absent from this debate.

A regional counterterrorism strategy was adopted by Ecowas heads of state in Yamoussoukro, Côte d’Ivoire in February 2013, but there was no mention of this at a discussion on this issue during the WEF summit last week. This was despite regional leaders from Mali and Niger being present, said Du Plessis.

Security analyst Gilles Yabi, speaking to the M&G from Dakar, Senegal, said the issue of Boko Haram was never placed on the agenda of Ecowas by Nigeria. “Nigeria is the big power in Ecowas,” he said. “If it doesn’t want to discuss a problem, we can’t force it.”

Yabi said it might seem an “aberration” that regional leaders have to travel to Paris to meet about a regional strategy against Boko Haram, but this is “the reality of our region”. The Anglophone-Francophone divide is still a factor, he said.

Yabi, a former regional director of the International Crisis Group, said France has an important role to play as a military force in the region, following its intervention in Mali in 2013 and its current deployment of troops in the Central African Republic. “As an African, my position is nuanced. On the one hand, given what Boko Haram has become, one has to be pragmatic. One can only hope that intervention by France and others will be successful. On the other hand, it shows the huge incapacity of African states to solve the problem. It is clearly admitting failure and dependency.”

The Paris summit is said to have been requested by Nigeria and is expected to be attended by Hollande, Jonathan and the leaders of Niger, Cameroon, Benin and Chad. The US and Britain are also expected to send high-level delegations. Although Niger and Benin are part of Ecowas, Chad and Cameroon belong to the Economic Community of Central African States. Relations between Nigeria and Niger are good, but those with Cameroon have been described as “hostile”.

France, as the former colonial power, has agreed to facilitate discussions between the neighbours, especially as Cameroon has a large border with Borno state, where the kidnapping of the girls took place, said a source in Paris. Regional co-operation will also help to sever links to criminal smuggling networks that Boko Haram or other terror groups might have. During France’s 2013 Operation Serval to drive Islamic militants out of Mali, proof of links between Boko Haram and both al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim) and Ansaru, an Islamist splinter group, were found.

Besides the fact that it could mediate between Jonathan and his neighbouring president, Paul Biya of Cameroon, the summit could also be a way for France to highlight the large military effort it has already made in the region. If the girls are found by the high-tech surveillance teams sent in by US President Barack Obama, the US alone will be thanked as the star of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign.

Government will negotiate with Boko Haram

The Nigerian government signalled this week that it is ready to negotiate with the religious extremists who are holding more than 200 schoolgirls captive, as international assistance to the search and rescue effort intensifies.

Canada is the latest country to disclose that it has sent special forces to Nigeria, joining teams from the United States, Britain, France and Israel.

The special duties minister, Taminu Turaki, said in Abuja that the government was open to talks with Boko Haram, the Islamist group that abducted the girls a month ago from their school in Chibok, in the northeast of the country. “Nigeria has always been willing to dialogue with the insurgents. We are willing to carry that dialogue on any issue, including [the] girls kidnapped in Chibok.”

A group of about 130 of the kidnapped girls appeared in a video released this week by Boko Haram. After a special viewing for parents, all the girls were confirmed as students of the Government Girls secondary school in Chibok. Although most of the abducted girls are Christian, all were wearing Muslim dress and two were singled out to say they had converted to Islam.

The Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, said the girls could be released in exchange for jailed militants. “I swear to almighty Allah, you will not see them again until you release our brothers that you have captured,” he said in the video. – © Guardian News & Media 2014

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