First the nation and now the world is in an uproar over an April 14
incident in the northeast (the Sambisa forest where the borders of Borno, Yobe and Adamwa states meet) where Boko Haram raided a boarding school for teenage girls and kidnapped nearly 300 students and some of the young women on the faculty. Fears were that the captives, aged 10-18, would be used for sex and slave labor (around the camps). While being transported to the terrorist camps more than 40 of the girls escaped but over 200 remained missing and the army was criticized for the inept way they handled the situation. Specific criticisms involved not heeding a warning that the large force (200 gunmen in trucks and on motorbikes) was headed for the school (the police and soldiers guarding the school fled on hearing this news), interviewing all the escaped girls promptly and not sending troops to guard the school as that was where some of the escaped girls were returning. None of this was unusual for the army, which suffers from corruption, poor discipline and often erratic leadership. Some units are very, very good but most are not reliable.
The army is accused of being intimidated by Boko Haram and hesitant to set up checkpoints or launch small patrols for fear of being overwhelmed by an attacking force of the fierce Islamic gunmen. Despite all that the army has had some success against Boko Haram, overrunning several camps and inflicting hundreds of casualties this year. The army offensive earlier in the year basically drove Boko Haram out of the cities of the northeast. But out in the countryside Boko Haram developed tactics (fairly safe bases across the border in Cameroon or in remote forests on the Nigerian side of the border plus a much more fierce approach to combat which intimidates many soldiers and police) that enabled the Islamic terrorist group to rebuild and carry out increasingly destructive raids.
The public is appalled that such a large Boko Haram force, travelling in over a dozen vehicles, could attack the school and then raid several more villages while driving back to their forest hideouts and not be detected or intercepted by the security forces. If the subsequent rumors are to be believed the army did detect this force moving about but lacked the commanders willing and able to respond quickly and forcefully enough to intercept and disrupt the Boko Haram plans.
As a practical matter the military is in a tough position. If they establish a lot of checkpoints in areas where Boko Haram is believed to have camps, Boko Haram can mass enough gunmen to attack these checkpoints with a fair chance of success. That means highly visible “defeats” for the army and a blow to morale because of the many dead and wounded soldiers. The army doesn’t like to discuss this very real conundrum they are in and are hoping that one of their field commanders will come up with new tactics that will speed up the detection and destruction of the Boko Haram camps and the Islamic terrorists who depend on them. The government has been reluctant to ask for foreign help but the troops out in the bush are eager for any edge they can get, no matter where it comes from. Moreover, some of the Nigerian officers and troops have received training from American troops, who impressed with their accounts of how U.S. forces operated in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nigerian troops admire fellow professionals who have succeeded in difficult situations and the combat troops in general are willing to share. Many Nigerian soldiers, especially junior officers, have access to the Internet and visit sites frequented by combat troops and know that help is available if only their own government would act.
The key Boko Haram vulnerability is the new bases they have established along the Cameroon border. Without these bases the Boko Haram cannot organize large raiding parties nor have a safe place to store their loot and slaves. Without their camps, many of them just across the border in Cameroon, Boko Haram is forced to operate in smaller, less effective, groups that are easier to deal with and destroy.
Political and army leaders fear that the uproar over the kidnapped girls will persist and force the security forces to take desperate measures (and suffer lots of casualties) in order to “do something.” In response the government has ordered two more divisions of troops (over 20,000 soldiers) north to aid in the search. To get these troops up there and into action will take weeks and in the meantime the international media is all over the story. The government is also offering a $320,000 reward for anyone who provides information that leads to the rescue of the girls. So far no one appears to have stepped forward with anything useful.
The outrage over the mass kidnapping is hurting Boko Haram as well, with fewer new recruits seeking to join because of the massive criticism now coming from Moslem clergy. Senior Islamic scholars throughout the Moslem world have condemned Boko Haram as violating Islamic law with their barbaric actions. Even al Qaeda has disassociated itself from Boko Haram, which had long claimed a connection with al Qaeda. Boko Haram has tried to put a positive spin on the situation, threatening to sell the girls into slavery. This is something that resonates with many Nigerians who still have memories of ancestors who were slaves. This boastful threat is meant to intimidate and does not reflect reality. There is still slavery in the Sahel (the semi-desert region that extends across Africa from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean), but it is illegal and handled quietly these days where it is still active. Some of the girls could be sold to slavers, but discreetly.
Meanwhile Boko Haram improves its situation out in the countryside by making deals with local criminal gangs wherein the gangs participate in some of the Boko Haram raids for a share of the loot. The gangs, who are usually based on tribal affiliation in a town or group of villages, are often smugglers and thus tolerated by the locals. Boko Haram does business with smugglers which is how they are able to connect with the gangs. These gangs won’t raid in the areas where they are from (and would be recognized and that would trigger reprisals) but most neighboring villages and towns are a different matter, especially if they are populated by people from another tribe. The gangsters are recognized (by mannerisms and accent) by survivors of the raids and this leads to more self-defense militias and calls to be allowed to possess legal firearms (there’s the lot of illegal stuff along the border). The security forces don’t want more legal firearms in the hands of people on the border, but may have to give a bit on that point if they want more effective cooperation from the locals. Finally, Boko Haram leaders may well realize that the international outrage over the kidnapping will probably die down and dissipate quickly and Boko Haram will continue to defy government efforts to eliminate Islamic terrorism in the mostly Moslem north. Boko Haram has been around since 2001 and despite several major police and military operations to wipe it out, continues to operate.
The government has asked the neighboring states of Cameroon, Chad, Benin, and Niger for help in locating and rescuing the kidnapped and enslaved girls. This tragedy has become big news throughout the region and some cooperation is expected. The fact that the incident has become a major news story makes it a major media defeat for Boko Haram, who always strive to portray themselves as devout reformers, not brutal self-righteous thugs. The Boko Haram resort to slaving resonates deeply in northern and central Nigeria for Bornu state (where Boko Haram is most active) was once the center of an empire that grew rich by enslaving other Africans and selling them to Arab traders who transported the slaves to Arabia. This trade continued until the British colonial government suppressed it in the 19th century. Bitter memories linger and the Boko Haram slaving has opened an old wound. Boko Haram may avoid that trap by offering to barter the girls for imprisoned Islamic terrorists. The government will resist that, as doing such trades merely encourages more kidnappings.
The main problem here is not Boko Haram but the corrupt and inept government that has cursed Nigeria since it became independent half a century ago. This the government has been saying, for over a decade that Boko Haram would be crushed within a year and that never happens. More insightful observers point out that the problem is mainly one of corruption and poverty, as well as the appeal of Islamic radicalism as a magical cure. All of Nigeria suffers from corruption. Poverty is more prevalent in the Moslem north, in part because of climate but also because Islamic culture discourages Western education or sending girls to school. The climate problem is because the semi-desert Sahel region south of the Sahara Desert is found in the north. Many northerners understand that if the corruption and bad government went away things would automatically get better. So far few northern politicians have become enthusiastic about cracking down on corruption. That’s a common sentiment with politicians throughout Nigeria and the main reason Boko Haram is not going to be eliminated anytime soon.
The Nigerian military also has a history of corruption, but usually in the form of looting or stealing military assets (cash and property). Taking bribes from the enemy, especially one that slaughters women, children and worshippers in church (the military is disproportionately Christian) seems unlikely. Nigerians consider their armed forces one of the better trained and led in Africa. But that’s not saying much, as the military training and leadership levels in Africa are very low, often to the point of complete ineffectiveness. Nigeria uses Britain as a model for its military, as Britain was the former colonial power in the region and helped establish the Nigerian military half a century ago. But the corruption that is endemic to the region eventually had its way with the armed forces. Leadership and training have suffered. But U.S. training teams (to improve peacekeeping and counter-terror skills) have been in Nigeria during the last decade, and report that the armed forces are not completely demoralized and debilitated by the corruption, and with some intense training, and elimination of the most corrupt officers, combat capabilities would be much improved.
May 10, 2014: The government announced the deployment of more air force and electronic equipment to assist in the search for the kidnapped girls. The government is also believed to have quietly accepted foreign military and intelligence assistance. Nigeria considers itself the foremost military power in sub-Saharan Africa and while that is a dubious claim it does encourage Nigerian leaders to resist calling in foreigners when there is an emergency the Nigerian military seems incapable to handling. Thus Nigeria has refused to allow American UAVs to help with the search. But the U.S. has spy satellites that can scrutinize the areas where Boko Haram has camps and that data can be discreetly passed to Nigerian officers for analysis and action. The U.S. has done that sort of thing before. If Nigeria asks, the U.S. can have several UAVs over the search area within 24 hours and keep UAVs over that area for as long as it takes.
What Nigeria has not refused is specialized electronic monitoring equipment that several Western nations have offered. This gear, used by police and military forces in many parts of the world enables security forces to monitor a wide range of electronic signals and automatically search for certain words or phrases. This makes it more difficult for the Islamic terrorists to coordinate their operations out in the bush, or makes it easier for the army to find them if they continue to use wireless communications. This equipment can be quickly and quietly installed on Nigerian Air Force (or civilian) aircraft and may already be in use.
May 9, 2014: In the northeast Boko Haram blew up a bridge and kidnapped the wife and two children of a retired police officer. The bridge was taken down to reduce the mobility of the security forces. The kidnapping was part of a campaign to intimidate local police into inaction or willingness to do favors (without or without a bribe) for the Islamic terrorists.
May 8, 2014: In the northeast (Borno state) over a hundred Boko Haram gunmen rode into the border town of Gamboru Ngala and opened fire on a crowded market place. Shooting at those who fled and then moving through the town setting fire to dozens of buildings and firing on anyone they encountered, the gunmen killed nearly 300 people before they drove away. Gamboru Ngala had a force of soldiers to defend against raids like this, but these troops had been sent away to help in the search for the kidnapped girls.
The government offered a $320,000 reward for anyone who provides information that leads to the rescue of the girls.
May 5, 2014: Boko Haram released a video in which the leader of the group took credit for the April mass kidnapping and claimed that the girls taken were now his slaves and threatened to sell the girls to others.
President Goodluck Jonathan finally made a public statement about the mass kidnapping and vowed to find them. But he has made promises like that before about Boko Haram and failed to deliver. Until today he not only seemed to ignore the kidnapping but was actively hostile to those calling for help. When some parents from the kidnapping area came to the capital to personally plead to the president and his wife for help, the president’s wife ordered them arrested. The petitioners were later released as public anger over the kidnapping and government inaction continued to grow. This silence was consistent with Jonathan’s view that Boko Haram was largely the fault of corrupt northern politicians who were encouraging the Islamic terrorists as a way to embarrass and punish the president for breaking an implied promise to not run for another term. Traditionally northern (Moslem) and southern (Christian) politicians took turns being president. Whichever party held the presidency got the biggest share of the billions stolen each year from government oil income. Nigerian politicians tend to concentrate on the money making aspects of holding office, not some nonsense about “public service.” There are exceptions, but these anti-corruption types tend to be hounded out of office, driven into exile or simply murdered. An honest politicians is very much an endangered species in Nigeria.
May 4, 2014: In the northeast (Borno) Boko Haram gunmen kidnapped another eleven teenage girls. This took place near the boarding school where nearly 300 were taken in April.
May 3, 2014: The U.S. State Department warned American travelers to avoid two hotels in the Nigerian port city of Lagos because of credible information that Islamic terrorists were planning to attack one of the hotels in the near future.
In the capital (Abuja) police raided locations near where two terrorist bombs had gone off in the last month. Eight people were arrested including some foreigners and charged with complicity in the bombings.
May 2, 2014: In the capital (Abuja) a car bomb exploded killing 19 and wounding over 50.