Defeating Boko Haram is a Global Imperative

By Richard Joseph

Militant Islamism has expanded in northern Nigeria over decades. Its trajectory can be traced because of the central role played by Wahhabi religious institutions in Saudi Arabia in the propagation of Salafist Islam. This process has included the training of clerics, the funding of mosques and schools, and the cultivation of dynamic leaders. The gifted scholar and preacher, Ja’far Mahmoud Adam, became the prime propagator in this network in the mid-2000s. He was killed on April 13, 2007 after virulently denouncing the more extreme views of his protégé, Mohammed Yusuf. When Yusuf and hundreds of his followers were killed by Nigerian police forces in July 2009, the movement went underground. It re-emerged in 2010, popularly referred to as Boko Haram, ready to wage jihadist war against the Nigerian state, Western education, and national and international institutions. It has since adopted every tactic available to contemporary insurgent and terrorist organizations. There are no limits to its brutality as it has targeted school children and very ordinary folk. Its vociferous leader, Abubakar Shekau, taunts the Nigerian government for its inability to crush his movement. [1]

New and sustained reflections are needed about a movement that now poses a dire threat to the Nigerian nation, its federal democracy, and neighboring countries. It has become part and parcel of militant global Islamism. To this end, AfricaPlus makes available the second and final part of a November 3 interview of Richard Joseph by Jerome McDonnell of WBEZ, Chicago, followed by a commentary on American and Nigerian collaboration.

Boko Haram and Nigerian Elections

Jerome McDonnell, WBEZ, Chicago: What do you make of the situation in Nigeria?

Richard Joseph: Nigeria is in a very critical situation and Americans and others need to pay closer attention. The Obama Administration is very focused on Iraq and Syria, and on combating the Islamic state. But there is now an avowed Islamic state in Africa.

JM: And this is the Boko Haram “state” in northern Nigeria?

RJ: Correct. They have declared a caliphate, with Gwoza as its capital. They control an estimated 8000 to 9000 square miles of territory. That would be equivalent to the American state of New Jersey, or Massachusetts. They’ve not only kept the Nigerian military at bay but many Nigerian soldiers are terrified of their fighters. It seems increasingly clear that the Nigerian military is not able to defeat Boko Haram on its own. Nigeria is in pre-electoral mode with national elections coming up in February, so this is a very critical period for the nation.

Abubakar Shekau

Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram Leader

JM: It seems that Goodluck Jonathan is not the candidate you would want to back if you sought a change in the situation in northern Nigeria. He’s not from the region. The country used to take turns with leadership, with people from the north and south. Now it seems like that tradition is busted.

RJ: That is right. America has been fortunate with wartime presidents. We had Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the Second World War. When he died his vice-president, Harry S. Truman, took over. Truman turned out to be a darned good president, and also superb in international affairs. Goodluck Jonathan, like Truman, is an accidental president, who follows an ineffective president, Umaru Yar’Adua. Yar’Adua was not only politically but physically weak. The person responsible for their elevation to high office was Olusegun Obasanjo. Obasanjo was twice Nigeria’s head of state, as a military ruler in the late 1970s and as an elected president from 1999 to 2007. He spent most of his second term trying to get rid of the two-term constitutional limit. When he had to leave, he ushered in Yar’Adua from the far north as president and, for the vice presidency, Goodluck Jonathan from the south-south, that is, the delta oil-producing region. Yar’Adua was critically ill for several months in 2009-2010 but wouldn’t hand over power to Jonathan. He was finally forced to do so on February 9, 2010 and died shortly thereafter, on May 5. [2] Jonathan completed his term and then ran in 2011 and won. Following that election, violent and highly destructive rioting took place in northern Nigeria.

Goodluck Jonathan

President Goodluck Jonathan

The North has been in decline and its residents are generally disenchanted. It must be understood that the Boko Haram insurgency is taking place in a region of about 80 million people in a country about twice that size, about 170 million. Goodluck Jonathan is looked upon by many in the North as having taken over the North’s term in office. Because of Yar’Adua’s weakness and his uncompleted first term, they feel their “turn” in the presidency was usurped. Jonathan stated that he would only run for one term. To no one’s surprise, he has recently announced his decision to run again in 2015. He is competing for the presidency at a time when oil prices have dropped sharply. Nigeria doesn’t have much financial reserves. The Excess Crude Oil Account is largely depleted. Reserves from petroleum revenues have been drawn to maintain political support. Nigeria is therefore entering a period of great uncertainty.

JM: The United States seems to have taken a serious interest in Boko Haram and put them in its security framework. I was surprised when I heard the Head of Central Intelligence talking about Boko Haram and drone strikes. It’s a situation that they appear to take very seriously.

RJ: Yes, they take it seriously, but there are a number of problems. The first is that it’s difficult dealing with the Nigerian government and also the Nigerian military. There is also the disturbing fact of publicized atrocities, human rights abuses, conducted by Nigerian security forces. This makes it difficult, given American law, to cooperate with them.

The other problem is that Nigeria is a very nationalist country. Nigerians consider their nation to be a major one. It is not like Sierra Leone, where the British intervened in May 2000 and drove back the militias. Or Mali, where the French did the same to the jihadists in January 2013. So the question is: Will Nigeria be able to work with external help, and will it accept that help? It does not appear able to defeat Boko Haram on its own, in the same way that Iraqi forces cannot defeat the Islamic State. So how is Nigeria going to get the necessary external assistance? What the US and coalition forces are doing in Iraq and Syria is what is needed in Nigeria. Nigeria needs a higher level of intervention, and I don’t see how that will happen.

JM: Is there a non-military way to do it? Everybody looked at the military solution in Iraq and said “this isn’t really going to work, but we’re going to do it anyway”. It would seem that there would be a political avenue to take in Nigeria with the coming presidential elections. They present an opportunity to create more political space for people in the North to feel included in what’s going on..

Let me touch on the military aspect before moving on to the political. As President Barack Obama said in his speech at the U.N. on September 24, there has to be a military response to violent jihadists. The same is true with regard to Boko Haram in Nigeria. A month ago, there were supposedly talks taking place in the Chadian capital, N’Djamena. We were told that the release of the Chibok girls and a ceasefire were imminent. All that evaporated and the warfare has intensified.

Getting to the political side, you do have a point. There is an opening for Nigeria. Discussing this opportunity puts me in an odd position. I have no intention of seeking to influence Nigerian electoral politics. A few major parties enjoying control of state governments have come together and formed an opposition coalition, the All Progressives Congress (APC). Its likely candidate for the presidency, unless for some reason he decides to step aside, is Mohammadu Buhari. Buhari has run for the presidency a number of times and also served as a military head of state, 1984-85. Assuming he is the APC presidential candidate, and has a respected southerner as his running mate, the APC could mount a major challenge to Jonathan and the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP).

Mohammadu Buhari

Mohammadu Buhari, Prospective Presidential Candidate

Nigeria has a highly presidential system, but this is combined with a sub-regional or zonal approach to national politics. When Goodluck Jonathan moved from acting to official president on May 6, 2010, his presence helped tamp down the long-running armed insurgency in the Nigerian Delta. For the combatants, and regional politicians, their man was now in control in Abuja, with access to abundant government resources. It would be understandable if some Nigerians, especially northerners, believed that the only way to mobilize the needed forces to defeat Boko Haram would be to bring a northerner to power.

There are two further relevant points. One of the greatest failures in Nigeria has been the failure of northern political (including military) leaders to enact a modernizing project for their region. They did not develop the North when they had privileged access to enormous financial resources. The second point concerns the military establishment. What are senior Nigerian officers thinking? Earlier, matters would not have reached this point. Nigerians would have already heard martial music on the radio and television, followed by announcements that the military had resumed control. During his term as an elected president, Obasanjo, as a military man and former coup-leader, succeeded in weakening the military’s threat to civilian government. But how long is the military going to allow this situation to persist?

JM: Do you have any advice for the United States and what it should do? It rushed into Liberia at the pleading of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to combat Ebola. You would need to drag the United States into serious military involvement in West Africa. But could it play any kind of role here that would be beneficial?

RJ: If I had to imagine an American role, it would look as follows. We are dealing with African geopolitics and global geopolitics. The African geopolitical situation concerns a band of insecurity, instability and insurgency from the northeast to the northwest of the continent. [3] What is taking place in northern Nigeria connects with what occurred in Mali and southern Algeria. The Boko Haram insurgency also involves northern Cameroon, Niger, and Chad. This is the regional African geopolitical dimension.

Second is global geopolitics in terms of global Islamism. Goodluck Jonathan went to Paris in May 2014 to attend a meeting convened by the president of France, François Hollande, of regional African presidents. It seemed a little odd because, why couldn’t Jonathan just invite those leaders to Abuja for such a meeting? But it gives a sense of what we’re dealing with in terms of regional leadership. What the U.S. must do is work more effectively with the French, the British, and other European partners. They need to put together a coalition, because coalitions have worked well in support of peace efforts and democratic transitions in Africa. We’ve seen this in Mali, Niger, the Ivory Coast, and even Somalia. There’s a need to put together one of these coalitions, bring together African leaders, executives of the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and others and sit down with Goodluck Jonathan and his advisers. He has to be told, if he doesn’t acknowledge it, that Nigeria is not winning the struggle. It had thirty-six states; it now has a thirty-seventh, a rogue state. Is Nigeria going to accept this loss of sovereignty? If not, a Western and African coalition must work with Nigerians to reverse this alarming situation.

Defeating Boko Haram: The American-Nigerian Axis [4]

The United States and Nigeria have been strong allies throughout Nigeria’s independent history. The U.S. lined up with the Federal Republic during its gravest crisis, the 1967-70 civil war. It made its displeasure known when Nigeria drifted seriously off course as a constitutional democracy during the prolonged military rule of General Ibrahim Babangida, 1985-1993. Babangida promised to return Nigeria to civilian rule and didn’t. It did the same, and more vigorously, when Babangida’s successor, General Sani Abacha, consolidated a highly repressive dictatorship, 1993-1998.

There have, of course, been hiccups in the relationship when head of state, General Murtala Muhammed, 1975-1976, criticized Britain and the U.S. over their dilatory approach to ending Ian Smith’s white-settler regime in Rhodesia. They were also evident in Nigeria’s rejection of Western complicity with the apartheid system in South Africa. However, most often in regional and global affairs, Nigeria has lined up dependably alongside the United States and its democratic allies.

That relationship recently showed signs of fraying over the unsuccessful military campaign to defeat Boko Haram. Professor Adebowale Adefuye, Nigeria’s combative ambassador to Washington, blasted the U.S. government for failing to provide Nigeria the lethal military equipment needed to defeat the insurgency, and for what he contends are exaggerated reports of human rights abuses by Nigeria’s security forces. [5] The U.S. stood its ground, claiming that it had provided Nigeria considerable military equipment and other assistance, that the human rights abuses were real and proven, that Nigeria could obtain equipment elsewhere (e.g. helicopters) denied by the U.S., and that Nigeria needed to make its security forces more effective and less a threat to innocent citizens. [6]

These eruptions will blow over. The stakes are too high for both Nigeria and the United States. However, it is important that America do more to help Nigeria, and Nigeria has to make such help possible. This was the final point discussed in the November 3 radio interview above. America has sometimes short-changed Africa. This was seen in the inadequate attempts to end the Charles Taylor insurgency in Liberia, despite the U.S. and Liberia’s intermingled history. It was seen in Bill Clinton pulling American forces from Somalia after 18 American soldiers were killed in October 1993, and refusing to intervene (after being alerted) to prevent the April 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

The American record in contemporary Africa is therefore mixed. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have many African achievements to their credit, especially in global health and electric power facilitation. But the U.S. cannot invest massively in the campaign to defeat the venomous Islamic State in Iraq and Syria while not helping corral the necessary forces to defeat Boko Haram in Nigeria. And Boko Haram must be defeated. It promotes everything Nigeria and America oppose: theocratic government in a multi-religious nation; autocratic rule in a constitutional democracy; denial of educational rights to boys and girls; the wanton slaughter of innocents; and the use of armed violence to pursue religious and political objectives.

A reset is needed in American-Nigerian relations. There may be as many as a million Nigerians now resident in the United States. They are a successful if largely quiescent community. Nigeria and the United States share a near identical constitutional system; and Nigeria’s liberalizing economy parallels that of America. President Goodluck Jonathan, in announcing his candidacy for a second and final term, declared his determination to combat corruption and Boko Haram. The U.S. does not have a horse in this electoral race. All the major candidates will propose reducing corruption, defeating Boko Haram, and strengthening ties with growing market economies.

The American conversation should not, however, be limited to diplomats and government spokespersons. It should also be a conversation between 170 million Nigerians and 320 million American citizens whose nations commit them to a similar course in national and global affairs. More Nigerians and Americans must join this conversation. This conversation must be lifted above the current mutual frustrations and finger-pointing. There are over 800,000 Nigerian citizens already displaced from their homes as a result of the armed conflicts. Many face destitution because of the loss of livelihood, deaths, the maiming of family members, and destruction of properties. Many children will be deprived of years of schooling. 

A grand coalition is needed to defeat Boko Haram, and it is needed now, just three months before the February elections. Many of the Chibok girls may be regrettably lost, as are hundreds of youths slaughtered in the past year. Barack Obama should elevate Boko Haram from a pro forma addition to sentences in security declarations to a center of focus of United States foreign policy. He should summon Americans and others to move beyond hand-wringing over the horrendous atrocities. What is needed now is determined and sustained action to end them. Nigerian security forces, and the militias they arm, can no longer kill innocent citizens with impunity. This existential threat to the nation, and its federal democracy, must be confronted and defeated in ways that uphold international law. It is a momentous challenge. Nigeria must be helped by the United States and its other international partners to overcome it.

 [1] Yusuf’s followers were sometimes called Yusufiyya and the movement’s name in Arabic is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’Awati Wal-Jihad (People Committed to the Prophet’s Teachings for Propagation and Jihad). An important edited collection of papers is now in press: Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclose, “Boko Haram, Islamism, politics, security and the state in Nigeria” originally issued by the African Studies Centre, Leiden, and the Institut Français de Recherche en Afrique (IFRA, 2014).

[2] These tumultuous events are discussed in Richard Joseph and Alexandra Gillies, “Nigeria’s Season of Uncertainty,” Current History (May 2010).

[3] I first discussed this situation in “Insecurity and Insurgency in Africa,”

[4] This is an addendum written on November 16, 2014

[5] For Ambassador’s Adefuye’s claims, see “Nigerian ambassador blasts US refusal to sell arms”

[6] The U.S. admitted to denying the provision of Cobra attack helicopters citing Nigerian capabilities and the risks to civilians. The crashing of Nigeria military helicopters on two recent occasions provided an exclamation mark to American concerns. For the U.S. statement, see:

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