The Chibok Girls and an Embattled Nigeria

By Richard Joseph

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on

Two centuries ago, John Keats wrote his enigmatic “Ode on a Grecian Urn”. It came to mind after President Barack Obama’s foreign policy address at West Point. The unheard message was about the Nigerian Urn, filling with human ashes from terrorist atrocities and military counterattacks. The heard melody was about the girls of Chibok, hauled away like livestock into the Sambisa Forest: “Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave”.



Escaped Chibok schoolgirls meeting with Borno state governor

“What levers, what power do we have” to help the abducted Nigerian girls, Mr. Obama fretted on May 8. Two weeks later he dispatched a military team to join others in the region. Then, at West Point on May 28, Mr. Obama declared that the U.S. would help rescue the girls “right away” and also assist Nigeria in educating its youth. Those were soft pipes playing for a country of 170 million bewildered by abominable acts and an embattled government.

Mass protests by civil society groups in Abuja waving #bringbackourgirls placards have been banned. No Tahrir Square or Maidan will be allowed in the Nigerian capital. Give him credit: Mr. Obama is reaching for all levers, even the implausible. A Hausa-language satellite television station will beam shows to this Kanuri-speaking region of Nigeria largely bereft of electricity much less TV receivers. Meanwhile, President Goodluck Jonathan has issued a “Total War” command to his harried troops, more besieged by the jihadists than the reverse.

I expected Mr. Obama to say more at West Point about the U.S. response to the security challenges in Nigeria. That may have been precluded by the murky situation on the ground. Even if the U.S. leads from behind, its role in addressing the vicious marauding of Boko Haram, and the shortcomings of the Nigerian military, is essential. This engagement can be summarized as Four F’s: Find the Girls, Fight Boko Haram, Fix the Nigerian Military, and Foster Democracy and Development. Each of these complex tasks is connected to the others.

Find the Girls

The global outcry about the kidnapped girls rendered it imperative to assist in their search and rescue. After five years of mayhem, Boko Haram crossed a line with their abduction. It was a horror experienced globally. The longer the search persists, however, is the more likely a multinational counter-insurgency campaign will be required. Eventually, the United Nations could become involved beyond declaring Boko Haram an al-Qaeda affiliate. In other words, prepare for the long haul. There are no quick fixes in contemporary Nigeria.


Aftermath of Boko Haram’s April 14 car bombing at an Abuja bus station

Fight Boko Haram

President Obama stated his determination to help foreign nations tackle their security threats and has proposed a Counterterrorism Partnership Fund. As in Liberia for over a decade, one consequence of this protracted strategy is the collateral loss of many civilian lives and the displacement of countless families. Still, no one expects to see American soldiers, apart from small counter-insurgency teams, on the ground in northern Nigeria. Regional armies will also not be permitted to engage in counter-insurgency operations within Nigeria as has taken place in the failed states of Liberia, Sierra Leone, Mali, and the Central African Republic. Therefore the main job of defeating Boko Haram must fall to Nigerian military forces, enhanced by advisers.

Fix the Nigerian Military

A Nigerian journalist once mentioned “the reverse Midas Curse” in discussing his country’s public institutions: “anything the state touches turns to dust.” The Nigerian military has been the beneficiary of steadily increased federal outlays to match the rising jihadist threat. Yet increased efficacy has not followed. One outcome of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that America’s experience in training local armies is now unparalleled. The building of an effective fighting force in Nigeria that has the matériel and morale to defeat Boko Haram, without deepening civilian distrust, is a high priority. To put the matter squarely: If the Nigerian armed forces cannot overcome the Boko Haram insurgency, the future of Nigeria comes into question.

Foster Democracy and Development

The vision of a Nigeria that would be a leader in constructing a vibrant and stable democracy, and achieving inclusive development, has been greatly tarnished.1 On August 5-6, a U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit will be convened in Washington, DC. Among the central themes will certainly be the retreat of democracy and the discordant nature of the recent growth spurt. In a continent whose population continues to increase rapidly, there are too many people, especially youths, being left behind economically. High on the Summit’s agenda must therefore be Nigeria’s at-risk democracy and the socio-economic distress of northern Nigeria.

Six months after the Washington Summit, Nigerians will go to the polls. Assuming this troubled nation makes it through to that exercise, there is no certainty that a governable entity will emerge from the contentious party politics and the inevitable electoral mishaps. Creating a global coalition to support state-building, democracy-building, and inclusive development in Nigeria is therefore imperative. It is essential for peace and security in Africa’s largest nation, but also for the wider region and, indeed, the world.

We end with an ode to the schoolgirls held captive by psychopaths parading as religious liberators 2 :

The Lost Girls of Chibok

Screen Shot 2014-06-07 at 12.18.36 PM

  1. Indeed, the book that is increasingly called to mind is J.F. Bayart et al., The Criminalization of the State in Africa, published the same year Nigeria returned to civilian rule, 1999. 
  2. A stanza from “Ode on a Grecian Urn”. 

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