By John Cherian
June 13, 2014
IT took more than a month for the international community to wake up to the plight of 200-odd schoolgirls kidnapped by the Nigerian Islamist group, Boko Haram. Pictures of the American First Lady, Michelle Obama, and leading show business personalities with posters demanding freedom for the girls have finally galvanised public opinion worldwide. The “Bring Back our Girls” campaign originated in Nigeria soon after the incident took place in April. The Nigerian Army has failed miserably either to rescue the girls or prevent more Boko Haram atrocities in the north-eastern region of the country. The group carried out a car bomb attack in the capital city, Abuja, in the second week of May, killing more than a dozen people. A week later, a suicide bomber attacked the Christian quarters of the northern city of Kano, killing half a dozen people.
Since the beginning of the year, more than 1,500 people have been killed in Boko Haram attacks. The Nigerian security forces, too, have reacted harshly, killing civilians suspected of sympathising with Boko Haram.
President Goodluck Jonathan, under fire for his inept handling of the situation, has now sought help from non-African countries to combat the Islamists. The United States, France, Britain, Israel and China have sent their advisers to Abuja. Boko Haram retaliated by attacking a Chinese factory across the border in Cameroon, killing two Chinese nationals and kidnapping an unspecified number of people in the third week of May. The U.S. has already deployed drones and other surveillance aircraft over northern Nigeria and surrounding areas to locate the missing girls and monitor the movements of the Islamist insurgents. American military advisers are on the ground advising the Nigerian Army on counter-insurgency tactics.
Even before the recent escalation of terrorist attacks by Boko Haram, the U.S. cooperated with Nigeria by deploying drones in the neighbouring country of Niger to enable counter terror surveillance activities. The U.S. signed an agreement with the Niger government in 2013 to deploy around 300 military personnel along with drones and maintenance crews in the West African country.
The Barack Obama administration, according to U.S. media reports, has come to the conclusion that the Nigerian Army is not in a position to rescue the kidnapped girls on its own. The Pentagon’s Principal Director for African Affairs, Alice Friend, told a U.S. congressional committee that the Nigerian Army faced the “same challenges with corruption that every other institution in Nigeria does”. She openly expressed her doubt about the capability of the Nigerian Army to mount a successful rescue mission even if “actionable evidence” of the whereabouts of the kidnapped girls was to be provided to the authorities there.
In the second week of May, troops in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state in north-eastern Nigeria where Boko Haram is most active, fired shots at their commanding officer. The soldiers had held the officer responsible for the deaths of many of their comrades at the hands of Boko Haram. Prominent U.S. lawmakers, such as Senator John McCain, known for their penchant for U.S. military intervention worldwide, have been demanding that Obama order deployment of troops in Nigeria to rescue the girls.
The girls were last seen in a video Boko Haram released in the first week of May. They were seen wearing Hijabs and reciting verses from the Quran. In another video released earlier, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau was seen railing against Western education in general and sending girls to school in particular. He threatened to get the girls married off forcibly if the Jonathan government did not agree to the release of hundreds of Boko Haram fighters and activists from Nigerian prisons. Shekau, who is acquiring a larger-than-life persona, had been declared dead three times by the Nigerian authorities. Yet, after every spectacular terrorist act, he appears on video to mock the Nigerian government. Now the U.S., French, British and Israeli security agencies have stepped in to assist the Nigerian government.
Jonathan, who was in Paris to attend the emergency African security summit hosted by French President Francois Hollande on May 17, refused to countenance the demand for the release of prisoners in exchange for the freedom of the kidnapped girls. He reiterated his refusal to negotiate with Boko Haram on this issue. The Obama administration has indicated that it is against the release of Boko Haram detainees or payment of ransom in exchange for the release of the girls. At the same time, Western military strategists also admit that rescuing the girls from the clutches of Boko Haram is going to be an extremely difficult task, given the remoteness and ruggedness of the terrain. The girls by now would have been separated into smaller groups, making the rescue effort even more dangerous.
France Wary Of U.S. Footprint
Also in attendance in Paris were the Presidents of Chad, Niger, Cameroon and Benin. These countries are Francophone West African states and have been under French influence ever since they attained independence. Jonathan, according to the French media, requested the convening of a summit in Paris with Nigeria’s neighbours. France has traditionally viewed much of sub-Saharan Africa to be under its sphere of influence. France is wary of the growing unilateral military footprint of the U.S. on the continent although it is cooperating with the U.S. in counterterrorism operations.
Cameroon, Niger and Chad share a border with Nigeria. Boko Haram fighters have been using the porous borders to their advantage. Boko Haram terrorism has claimed the lives of more than 6,000 people in the past five years. The group has targeted French citizens in Cameroon, which had until recently viewed Boko Haram as a problem confined to the territory of its larger neighbour. Nigeria has been complaining that Boko Haram uses the remote parts of northern Cameroon as a base to recoup and escape from the pursuing army. But the spurt in Boko Haram activities coupled with bloodletting in the Central African Republic (CAR), another country with which Cameroon shares a border, have led to an influx of refugees from the north and the south. Cameroon is engaged in a territorial dispute with Nigeria, which has soured bilateral relations. But, undoubtedly pressured by France, Cameroon has decided to cooperate with Nigeria in its pursuit of the terrorists.
France is also worried about the security of the uranium mines it controls in Niger. Clashes between the army and militants having links with Boko Haram were reported earlier in the year. The Islamist upsurge in Mali in 2013 had threatened to spill over to Niger, which has a sizable Tuareg population. French military intervention in Mali had stopped the Islamists in the north of the country from toppling the central government. However, it was the French-inspired intervention by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in Libya three years ago that gave an impetus to Islamist militant groups in the region. Sophisticated weapons taken away from the Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s armoury reached Nigeria in the south and the Gaza Strip in the north. The continuing chaos and anarchy in Libya three years after the Western military intervention and the strong presence of Islamist militias in the country have provided hope and succour to groups such as Boko Haram.
But France feels it is duty-bound to protect its former colonies. It has a permanent military presence in many of its former African colonies, including Mali, Niger and Chad. The Presidents of these countries owe their political relevance to France. Hollande, speaking after the recent meeting in Paris, said the six countries had decided to adopt “a general and regional action plan” to combat terrorism in the West African region for the medium as well as the long term.
He said there would be “intelligence coordination, sharing of information, centralisation of means, border surveillance” among the six countries. Hollande said the terror groups posed a threat not only to the region but to Europe as well. Jonathan, while endorsing the view of his French counterpart, averred that only a “regional approach” could help address the problems. “Without West African countries coming together, we will not be able to crush the terrorists,” he said in Paris. The meeting was attended by senior officials from major western European countries and the U.S.
Nigeria, a country with the largest gross domestic product (GDP) in Africa and a leading member of the African Union (A.U.), now finds itself in the position of having to seek foreign military help to tackle a domestic insurgency. Nigeria had the privilege of leading many peacekeeping forces on the continent, including the forces of the Community of West African States to Liberia and Sierra Leone. The A.U., until a few years ago, had frowned on the deployment of European and American troops on African soil. Peacekeeping and counter-insurgency missions in the continent were led by African countries themselves. The U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), set up during the last days of the George Bush presidency, has been desperately looking for permanent military basing facilities on the continent. The command, with its headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, has a small military base in Djibouti, a tiny country located in the Horn of Africa region. AFRICOM also has a civilian component, which provides “needy” African nations with “humanitarian” aid and “good governance”. (India is actively partnering U.S. agencies in spreading “democracy” and “good governance” in many African countries.)
American Pivot Gets Major Fillip
But with countries such as Nigeria now willing to provide AFRICOM a military toehold, the parallel American pivot to Africa has received a major fillip. AFRICOM has 18 forward-operating bases on the continent, with U.S. troops already advising the armies of Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and other countries. The U.S. troop presence on the continent is the largest since the failed military intervention in Somalia in the early 1990s. AFRICOM Commander, General David Rodriguez, in a testimony to the U.S. Congress, said that the U.S. military intervention in Africa was largely dictated by the presence of hydrocarbons and other rich mineral deposits, which have not yet been exploited.
“Africa’s increasing importance to allies and emerging powers, including China, India and Brazil, provides opportunities to reinforce U.S. security objectives in other regions through our engagement with the continent,” Gen. Rodriguez told the U.S. congressional committee last year. He said the U.S. military had carried out 546 “activities” on the continent, up from 172 in 2008 when AFRICOM was founded. The activities ranged from training the armed forces of many countries to carrying out “special-ops” in countries such as Somalia and Uganda.
The U.S. forces are battling the Al Shabab militant group in Somalia and hunting for Joseph Kony of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a guerrilla group operating in Uganda and the neighbouring countries. The U.S. Special Forces have been unsuccessful in tracking down the elusive leader of the LRA. The U.S. social media erupted into a frenzy after a video, “Kony2012”, was released online detailing the atrocities committed by the LRA and Kony. Hollywood celebrities and others joined a high-profile campaign to persuade the Obama administration to send in troops to Uganda to hunt for Kony. The LRA became notorious worldwide for its brutality against civilians and the use of child soldiers.
The U.S. wants to use the anti-terror campaign in Africa to gain strategic control over the flow of natural resources to countries such as China. One-third of China’s oil imports are from Africa, and the country is emerging as the continent’s top trading partner and investor. Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang was in Abuja to attend the 24th World Economic Forum on Africa (May 7-9). Li Keqiang offered to invest more than $13 billion to upgrade the Nigerian railway system. He also said that China would help locate the missing schoolchildren.