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War on Terror in West Africa: The Rise of Nigerian Islamic Militant Group Boko Haram and Others



By Poppie Mphuthing

10 June 2013

The United States War on Terror has officially found fertile ground in West Africa.

In the last few days the news cycle has been abuzz with the announcement that the US has placed bounties on the heads of Islamist leaders in West Africa to the tune of $23 million.

The hugest bounty is on the head of Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Nigerian Islamic militant group Boko Haram.

The US administration is offering a cool $7 million for information that could lead to his arrest. This move is certainly bold, not least because Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan is running the risk of being a spectator to the narrative of Nigeria’s internal strife, rather than the author of the solution.

Jonathan’s three-year presidency has been riddled with armed conflict between the state apparatus and various disgruntled armed groups.

Initially, the fight with the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta grabbed many headlines as stories of oil pipeline sabotage frequented newsstands and broadcast bulletins.

This conflict, one of resource access has simmered down, only to give way to a more menacing ideological battle. A conflict that has deepened the fracture between Nigeria’s predominantly Muslim North and Christian South.

The rise of Islamic militant groups during Jonathan’s presidency has become increasingly dangerous, not only for potential civilian targets, but also for Jonathan’s political credibility.

Declarations of States of Emergency in various states in the North have become par for the course and so too have Boko Haram attacks on Christians.

In recent weeks Jonathan has declared a State of Emergency in three North-East states that are insecure and under threat of attack by Islamist groups. More than 2,000 people are the collateral damage of this fight that has raged between the government and Boko Haram for the last three years.

The fight with Islamist groups is tricky because of the tentacle-like structure of Jihadist groups that have a global network of official inter-affiliated groups and have become increasingly organised.

Furthermore, the objective of such groupings is one that the Nigerian government can never negotiate and reach common ground on… the establishment of an Islamic state. Boko Haram, whose very name means “Western education is forbidden” speaks directly to the intractable nature of this conflict.

Boko Haram has continued to up the ante since 2010, when Shekau explicitly aligned the group with Al-Qaida and has progressively stepped up the campaign of bombing attacks against Nigeria's Christians.

One has to wonder if Nigeria’s president has a grip on his country. That the world’s biggest military super power is swooping in to the region to the rescue of Nigeria as well as other West African states, from an Islamist threat, leaves a question mark over Nigeria’s sovereignty.

The State of Emergency recently announced in the north-eastern states of Yobe, Adamawa and Borno is Jonathan’s latest move to assure the public that the Islamist threat is being diffused by the military.

And yet numerous news reports suggest that there is absolutely no evidence that the battle is being won. Even the army has admitted that the group is well organised and equipped. Whatever the actual truth of military gains and losses in the North, Jonathan is certainly fighting a losing PR battle against Boko Haram.

This war of attrition by Boko Haram against Jonathan’s government in a bid to create an Islamic Nigeria simply goes on, while the casualties and fatalities steadily rise. While Jonathan insists that the fight against Islamists is being successfully fought by the Nigerian military, the tone is more one of false bravado than the self-assured sentiment of a man with a plan.

The man with the plan seems to be US President Barack Obama, putting money where his mouth is in a bid to disable Boko Haram. Jonathan’s announcement, officially designating Boko Haram and lesser-known Ansaru as terrorist groups, seems to be reactive coming after the fact of the US bounty call.

There can, really, only be one king of any castle. Jonathan’s moves in the next few months will determine whether government or the militants will win the title of the undermined little rascal. Right now, there is a stalemate. Even if Shekau is brought down by the aggressive play of the US, Jonathan could still find that his chequered role in the fight against Islamists will checkmate the credibility of his presidency in the final endgame.