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Terrorism Undeterred: Nigeria’s Boko Haram Failure

By Carl Unegbu

The shadowy terrorist group Boko Haram remains at the center of Nigeria’s national security crisis. In early March, captors killed two western hostages (a Briton and an Italian) during a failed rescue operation ordered by British Prime Minister David Cameron. Authorities accused the al-Qaida linked terrorist group Boko Haram of the kidnapping—making for just another sad episode in what is fast becoming a national epidemic.

Nigeria’s domestic crisis first took on international dimensions in August 2011, when Boko Haram bombed the UN building in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. In response to the attack, the Nigerian government promptly vowed to bring all those involved to swift justice. However, given its decade-long inability to effectively deal with the Boko Haram threat, the odds are low that—left entirely on its own—the Nigerian government will be able to carry out its promise.

Therefore, given the growing international dimensions of this once local problem, the application of some calculated outside pressure on the Nigerian government may be the only way to deal with Boko Haram. The international community has used its leverage to push the Nigerian government toward better governance in the past and needs to do so again or else risk the growth of another terrorist hotbed.

The Nigerian government remains reluctant to enforce its own laws—as evidenced by the failure to prosecute those involved in the recent Boko Haram attacks. Since Boko Haram’s killing of about 186 people in the northern city of Kano this past January, many of the group's members, including some of its senior leaders and operatives, have been arrested or killed by Nigerian authorities. Published media reports reveal that Boko Haram captives named  some of their secret backers, including prominent politicians, elder statesmen, and traditional rulers. Yet none of the people named have been seriously investigated, let alone indicted.

Worse, the government has chosen to enter into ill-advised peace talks with Boko Haram, mediated by Boko Haram’s appointees whose claim to credibility is derived from their former association with the slain Boko Haram founder, Mohammed Yusuf. Considering Boko Haram’s jihadist aspirations and its view of the Nigerian government as wholly illegitimate, one is hard pressed to find a rational explanation for the Nigerian government’s participation in such a predictably futile exercise. Not surprisingly, Boko Haram reportedly pulled out of the talks almost as soon as they began and vowed to press ahead with its jihad.

Of the outside players who could make a difference, the West, under American leadership, has both the means and the incentives to help. The latest kidnapping and murder of the two Westerners likely won’t be the last, given number of Westerners with business and other dealings in the country. Aside from the personal security of Westerners in the area, Boko Haram’s work as an affiliate of al-Qaida further expands the war zone in which the West must fight against global Islamic terrorism. Additionally, there is the Western world's (especially the United State's) vested geo-strategic interest in preventing further instability—not to mention Islamic terrorism—in important oil-producing countries and regional powers like Nigeria.

In terms of capacity to act, the West has substantial leverage over the Nigerian government, arising not only from historic political and diplomatic ties that stretch back to colonial times, but also from strong bilateral and multilateral economic and military assistance and co-operation.  Not only does Nigeria rank among the top five beneficiaries of the U.S.'s African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) but about 80 percent of Nigeria’s exports are destined for Western markets, with the U.S. importing more than $33 billion from Nigeria in 2011, up from $19 billionn in 2009. Using its leverage, the West can pressure the Nigerian government to enforce its own laws by prosecuting terrorists and to quit negotiating with Boko Haram.  

The matter of law enforcement is undoubtedly the Nigerian government’s Achilles heel, and remains the most important missing link in all of its attempts to deal with the present crisis. To date, not only has the government negotiated with Boko Haram, but it has also deployed the rather blunt instrument of military crackdown, particularly in the Northeast region of the country. These military crackdowns have, as evidenced by the government's response to a Boko Haram bombing in the Kaleri Ngomari Custain area of Maiduguri, in July 2011, been more successful in collectively punishing the general population of the area than ferreting out terrorists.  This past July, troops of the military’s Joint Task Force (JTF) reportedly cordoned off the area and went from house to house brutalizing the population, leaving at least 25 dead and another 45 wounded. In the aftermath of the JTF’s rampage, several houses were burned, forcing their occupants to flee; women and children were beaten; and men and boys went missing. Amnesty International and other human rights groups in Nigeria were the first to blow the whistle on the atrocities. Following this international outcry, the governor of the state admitted that the JTF had used "excessive force" in his state and the country’s defense minister was obliged to direct military authorities to investigate the disturbing allegations.

Incidentally, there is a precedent for applying effective international pressure to secure responsible behavior on the part of the Nigerian government. In 2002, financial crimes—sometimes involving high-ranking Nigerian officials—were a serious problem in Nigeria. Then as now, the Nigerian government had adopted a rather lax attitude towards both industry regulation and law enforcement regarding financial crimes, thus creating a heightened danger of terrorist financing in the aftermath of 9/11.

This danger motivated the G-7 initiated Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to put Nigeria on a list of countries, which by virtue of their laws and regulatory climate, were not co-operating in the fight against global terrorism. Facing an imminent deadline for compliance with FATF requirements, and at the risk of having their commercial credit lines severed, the Nigerian government passed, literally overnight, the Economic and Financial Crimes Law. Prior to the FATF’s December 2002 deadline, that law had zero chance of clearing the National Assembly.

Today everyone agrees that the Boko Haram crisis is of a more serious and urgent nature than the financial crimes issue of a decade-past. Therefore the international community should take a cue from its actions of 2001 and pressure the Nigerian government to pass measures to effectively deal with and eliminate Boko Haram.

The effective starting point in the enforcement of Nigeria’s laws is to promptly indict all those already arrested in connection with Boko Haram’s activities under the country’s Terrorism (Prevention) Act of 2011. This anti-terrorism law provides prison terms of up to 20 years and in some cases death sentences for offenders, who include both the foot soldiers of terrorism as well any aiders and abettors.  And with respect to those who aid and abet terror, the investigations should faithfully follow the leads and cues obtained from the interrogations of those under arrest with the ultimate goal of exposing and indicting the secret backers of Boko Haram whether within or  outside the government. The indictment and conviction of less than everyone involved will certainly not be enough.

At the same time, it must be admitted that the scheme for prosecuting offenders under the current anti-terror law is rather flawed and needs serious overhaul. At the moment, prosecutions under the law take place only at the federal high courts, which are notoriously tardy and already overburdened courts that labor under considerable resource constraints. The matter is made worse by the predictable inclinations of lawyers to gum up the system through undue reliance on technicalities and sundry dilatory tactics which terribly undermine the compelling national objectives of the anti-terror law itself. As a remedy, the government should expeditiously seek an amendment of the law to create a “special court” system with highly streamlined procedures, including definite timelines and expedited appeal provisions, which would reflect the need for swift prosecutions under the law.  

In addition, the Nigerian government will do well to break with old habits and make public the report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Boko Haram crisis of 2009; even more importantly, the government should do its best to implement the report’s recommendations.

Nigerian missteps have compounded the situation with Boko Haram and have undermined the physical security of the nation's own citizens. Additionally, the problem has taken on global dimensions in an increasingly inter-linked world haunted by international Islamic terrorism. Consequently, the international community, especially Western powers, must use their leverage to secure a verifiable commitment from the Nigerian government to act as a responsible player in the global campaign against Islamic terrorism.



Carl Unegbu is a Nigerian-born American lawyer and journalist.  He is a principal at ComedyBeat, Inc.

[Photo courtesy of ssoosay.]

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