The kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in Nigeria over a month ago served as the world’s introduction to Boko Haram, a terrorist network in Nigeria, Cameroon and Niger seeking to establish a Salafist-ruled state in the West Africa region. With an increasing number of Western states now committing to providing assistance to African nations fighting the terrorist network and the public’s interest in the girls’ fates growing more impassioned, the nature of this tug-of-war — ongoing since 2009 — is becoming evident.
Since the beginning of the crisis of the kidnapped schoolgirls, the role of the United States in Nigeria has become a major point of contrast. News and expert analyses have placed some of the blame on the United States’ response to reports of sectarian violence in Nigeria as being key to allowing Boko Haram to operate with minimal challenge from the Nigerian government.
Citing a 2012 law that prohibits the U.S. government from offering military assistance to any country that violates the basic human rights of its citizens, the White House cut off all military aid to Nigeria. In doing this, the United States may have inadvertently caused the problem the international community is now scrambling to resolve.
Nigeria depends heavily on American humanitarian and military assistance. The threat of losing this foreign aid may have been enough to convince Nigeria to back down from apprehending members of Boko Haram — a move that could have paved the way for last month’s kidnappings.
On April 16 and 17, 2013, for example, the Nigerian government launched a massive offensive in the village of Baga. Reports — such as the one issued by Human Rights Watch — suggested that as many as 200 civilians were killed and over 2,000 houses and businesses were destroyed. Employing a “scorched earth” policy to suppress opposition from Islamic civilians sympathetic to Boko Haram, soldiers allegedly doused homes in gasoline and set fire to them and shot villagers attempting to flee.
The Nigerian government vigorously denies such allegations, asserting that the “massacre” was a focused raid against Boko Haram. Reports from survivors suggest that the reports from Human Rights Watch and other Western sources may have exaggerated the casualty list due to confusing and contradictory statements. According to the Nigerian government, 30 members of Boko Haram died, five were arrested and six civilians died in crossfire. A health worker at the Goni Bukar Usman health clinic in Baga reported treating 193 people following the “massacre,” but only 10 who had suffered serious injuries.
Nevertheless, the media overwhelmingly reported this incident as a sectarian clash, with the majority Christian government imposing its will against the Muslim minority in violation of human rights protections. This supposed clash, then, is what led to the cut in American military aid.
A Nigerian soldier recently told Sky News that the Nigerian military is so poorly equipped that it offers little resistance to Boko Haram.
“They give us just AK47s to go into the bush to fight Boko Haram,” said the soldier, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Our equipment doesn’t work and they give us just two magazines (60 bullets) to go into the bush.”
The soldier also pointed out that many soldiers have not received allowances and have been forced to wait for months to be paid.
“It’s not right,” he said. “We feel so bad because we … are trying, the soldiers are trying our best but the civilians don’t realize what the Nigerian army is issued with, what they are given to go and fight the Boko Haram. They don’t know the caliber of the weapons that the Nigerian army is giving them. The caliber of the Boko Haram weapons is past (better) than the Nigerian army weapon.”
The United States’ indirect involvement in the kidnappings — curtailing and criticizing Nigerian efforts to control Boko Haram — has created a conflicted notion in Nigeria about accepting American help against Boko Haram now. As Boko Haram’s death toll has skyrocketed since the United States threatened to withdraw aid, it is clear to many in Nigeria that the United States may be seeking to spin the narrative away from American culpability in this situation.
Boko Haram is a loosely connected network of cells who derive from the Muslim-dominated northern Nigeria. The group’s name has been taken by the media to mean “Western education is sin,” but it actually translates to “sinful fraud” from Hausa. Its official name is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad, which translates to “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad.” Attacking the police, military, rival clerics, school, religious buildings, politicians and civilians since 2009, the group argues that government corruption and regional economic disparity reflect the nation’s divergence from Islam and a lack of recognition of the disaffected north. The group sees “Western influences,” such as female education and the use of a Western-style educational system, as contributing to the nation’s decay.
In 2009, the group’s refusal to obey a motorcycle helmet law led to a police and army suppression that left more than 800 dead and resulted in the execution of Boko Haram’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf. Since this incident, Boko Haram has named the Nigerian government as its enemy, and it seeks the government’s collapse in order to establish a Shariah-based Islamic state.
As Boko Haram is so diffuse, it is difficult to determine who is part of the group and what its goals are. While Abubakar Shekau, the Boko Haram leader behind the kidnappings of the schoolgirls, has indicated that he hopes to spread his anti-American campaign around the globe, other cells in the group are more concerned with national or local goals.