Armed rebel group Boko Haram has killed hundreds of people in a remote town in northeastern Nigeria close to the Cameroon border, violently underlining President Goodluck Jonathan’s inability to quell an insurgency that threatens to tear his country apart.
Amid an as yet fruitless search for 276 schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram in mid-April, Nigeria's embattled government will be under more pressure than ever to show strength in its fight against Boko Haram, just as Nigeria is thrust into the limelight by the World Economic Forum, which kicked off in the capital, Abuja, on Wednesday.
In the latest suspected Boko Haram attack, which took place on Monday night but was reported only on Wednesday, gunmen set homes in Gamboru Ngala on fire and gunned down residents who tried to escape the flames, according to reports from ThisDay newspaper and Borno state Information Commissioner Mohammed Bulama.
The "[fatality] figures are high — hundreds — but we are still awaiting details from the military authorities,” Bulama told the Associated Press, while Nigerian federal Sen. Ahmed Zanna told AFP the death toll from the attack, which lasted about 12 hours, was close to 300.
Boko Haram — whose name translates roughly to “Western education is forbidden” — is based in Nigeria’s largely Muslim north but seeks to impose its radical interpretation of Islamic Sharia law upon the rest of the country, whose population is split between Christians and Muslims. The group, which was recently designated a terrorist organization by the U.S., has killed more than 4,000 people in the past five years and over 1,500 in 2014 alone, according to estimates from the International Crisis Group.
The killings will likely compound criticism of Jonathan’s government, which has come under fire for its perceived incompetence and foot-dragging in the floundering effort to rescue the teenage girls. Boko Haram’s leader, who only claimed responsibility for the kidnappings on Monday, has threatened to sell the girls into slavery, and there has been no indication the government has information of their whereabouts.
Under growing domestic and international pressure that has spawned the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls on Twitter, Abuja has been forced to accept U.S. military assistance in the search for the missing girls. On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said 10 uniformed personnel would be sent as part of an “assessment and coordination team” working with the Nigerians.
But in a conference call with reporters the same day, Johnnie Carson, the former assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said the U.S. was prevented from offering much more given the Nigerian military’s “heavy-handed and brutal” response to the insurgency, which Carson said was viewed as being “just as predatory and disrespectful of Nigerians’ civil liberties as Boko Haram has been.”
In the most shocking instance of unwarranted reprisal against Boko Haram, Nigerian security forces rounded up and extrajudicially executed more than 600 people across the city of Maiduguri in March, according to Amnesty International, after a Boko Haram raid on a military barracks in the same state. Those slaughtered were believed to be unarmed, recaptured detainees from the rebel group.
Though popular support for the insurgency is believed to be quite minimal, even in the north, said Lesley Anne Warner, Africa analyst at CNA Corp., “the Nigerian government’s response to the violence perpetrated by Boko Haram in effect proves one of their grievances — that the government, as it stands, has been corrupted and is not on the side of the people.”
By lending credence to Boko Haram’s grievances, Jonathan’s handling of the insurgency has been counterproductive, she said. “One of the main tenets of counterinsurgency is that you drain the swamp that the fish — the insurgents — are swimming in. Instead, the Nigerian government is filling the swamp.”
Residents of the north have accused the Jonathan administration of turning a blind eye to their region and of downplaying the threat posed by Boko Haram. That threat has become impossible to ignore.
The Jonathan government’s response to both the massacre and the kidnappings will be subject to intense scrutiny, and the stakes are high — not just because failure would embarrass Nigeria during the Forum, which is seen as highlighting the country's recent accession as Africa’s largest economy. Jonathan faces the prospect of re-election in 2015, and his broken promises that Nigeria was winning the war against Boko Haram may prove fatal to his chances.
For all the criticism it has weathered, the Nigerian government has had to walk a delicate line in dealing with the kidnappings. Worse than the failure to track down the girls would be for Boko Haram to sense an imminent government raid and summarily execute their prisoners — something the group has done in the past following botched rescue operations by Nigerian forces.
“Their hands are tied,” said Ryan Cummings, chief Africa analyst for red24, a crisis management group. “Any outcome that results in the girls’ deaths will highlight the Nigerian government’s incompetence” at a time when the world’s economic leaders and press junkets are descending upon Abuja.
That latter point might explain Monday’s massacre — and, in part, the kidnappings — in the context of Boko Haram’s wider goals, as they are interpreted by analysts. Just as there was speculation that the Chechen insurgency, another long-rumbling but still fringe movement with loose ties to Al-Qaeda, might stage a terror attack on Russian soil during the international spotlight provided by the Sochi Olympics, many suspect Boko Haram wants to capitalize on Nigeria’s current limelight to boost its credentials as a viable insurgency — perhaps in a bid for more funding from Al-Qaeda and other radical groups.
“There were suggestions the group is posturing itself as a major stakeholder in global jihadism, as a custodian of jihad not only in Nigeria but Africa in its entirety,” Cummings said.
If nothing else, he added, attacks like the massacre in Gamboru Ngala "dispel the government's narrative that the insurgency will remain a tiny feature of the country's security environment."
With wire services