While the Islamist militant group Boko Haram has been on the offensive for years, the kidnapping of more than 200 school girls in the town of Chibok marks a new chapter in the Nigerian government’s struggle against the group. Although Boko Haram has kidnapped girls before — to global indifference — what is unique about the Chibok kidnappings is their massive scale. This was not business as usual. The abductions were a publicity stunt aimed at shocking Western sensibilities about sociocultural propriety, as much as a strategy to deter girls from attending school.
Nevertheless, the worsening domestic landscape in Nigeria may open up new channels for global cooperation against the militants. So what should be done to end Boko Haram’s reign of terror?
The most important reforms will start within Nigeria itself. Above all else, President Goodluck Jonathan needs to depoliticize the issue of security. Nigerian citizens have historically been deeply wary of Nigerian politicians. For example, the state and the central bank are clashing over $20 billion in missing state oil revenue, causing distrust among citizens.
In addition, some believe the May 2013 declaration of a state of emergency in Nigeria’s three northeasternmost states — Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa — was a long-term ploy to prevent their generally anti-Jonathan voters from coming to the polls during next year’s elections.
Meanwhile, the government’s approach to Boko Haram has exacerbated the feeling that security provision is replete with political motives. The Nigerian first lady, Patience Jonathan, only deepened civil society’s incredulity with her political theatrics in chastising civil society groups for protesting the government’s slow response to the kidnappings. “You are playing games,’’ she said. “Don’t use schoolchildren and women for demonstrations again.”
Apart from crafting an apolitical security policy, there needs to be more effective allocation of national funds to areas affected by the Boko Haram insurgency. For instance, governors in the northeast balked when the 2014 federal budget appropriated only around $12.3 million for economic stimulus initiatives in Boko Haram-dominated areas. In comparison, $18.4 million was earmarked to subsidize the domestic “Nollywood” film industry.
Tactically, the Nigerian government needs to improve its capabilities at gathering human intelligence about Boko Haram. While the government’s initial response via its “Joint Task Force” — a multi-agency collective of Army, Air Force, police, and intelligence units — was somewhat successful in encouraging civilian engagement to gain information, its shift to an all-Army response in August 2013 served to diminish these abilities. Given the prevalence of cellphones even in the most remote parts of the country, the introduction of anonymous text messaging services for locals to identify Boko Haram members and their movements could help gather intelligence while reducing informants’ fears of retribution.
The kidnappings also have led to increasing forms of engagement from the international community. The United States has agreed to help combat Boko Haram in new ways, including military and intelligence assistance that stops short of placing US combat troops on the ground. France, too, has a notable role to play in pressuring West African Francophone states — notably neighboring Cameroon, Niger, and Chad — to ramp up information-sharing and cooperation via the Multinational Joint Task Force. Nigeria should accept this assistance, even though doing so inevitably undercuts its desire to portray itself as the undisputed regional power of West Africa specifically and Sub-Saharan Africa generally.
The deplorable security situation in Nigeria has recently reached new lows. Yet, with requisite political will on behalf of the Nigerian government and the global community, this new nadir may be leveraged into a positive resolution.
Jason Warner is a PhD candidate in African studies and government at Harvard University. Jacob Zenn is a legal adviser and security analyst based in Washington.