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Boko Haram, the West, and the Future of Nigeria

Despite attacks in Baga and continuing assaults on large cities in Nigeria media in the West has chronically underreported the insurgency orchestratedby Boko Haram. Granted that reporting accurately on the conflict and the latest string of attacks faces extreme challenges, where has the outcry of support for Nigeria been? Given prior American involvement against extremists in the Philipinnes, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Morroco and Mali they should be fare more involved over Boko Haram. Perhaps even more puzzling – where is Nigerian action against their extremist threat?

Boko Haram is an Islamist Fundamentalist Extremist organization that seeks to prevent Western influence in Nigeria. Their name actually translates to “Western education is forbidden” in the Hausa language. Operating largely in the North of the country the organization has made increasingly frequent and lethal attacks since its founding in 2009. Although the United States only declared it a terrorist organization in 2013 it appears to have garnered little notice. Despite media attention in declaring a caliphate and in the kidnapping of hundreds of schoolgirls, they are mostly absent from the news. This is not an indication that they are less active than the much more reported ISIL. From the beginning of the insurgency the group has been responsible for displacing over three million people and in the first half of 2014 alone the deaths of over 2,000 others according to Human Rights Watch. That figure continues to grow although it remains widely disputed. The Washington based Council on Foreign Relations instead claims that in all of 2014 the group killed more than 10,000 people. Their latest series of attacks are no different.

While the world focused on the shootings in and around Paris, Boko Haram killed an unknown number of civilians in and around the town of Baga and scores more in two suicide bombings – perhaps commited by young girls. The Baga attacks are particularly unclear. Government sources put the death toll below 150 but Amnesty International has suggested as many as 2,000 were killed – all along with 3,700 buildings damaged or razed.

So the question remains where is the outcry? Answers should again bear in mind that reporting on the conflict faces severe challenges. The idea that Western media is dismissive of violence in Africa is not a new one and probably an unfortunate component of the answer. That France is also a key American ally in the ‘War on Terror’ and as a part of NATO also has merit. That doesn’t explain why Nigerian leaders themselves are also speaking little on the atrocities. Indeed one minister actually condemned the violence in France and avoided comment on the attacks. Another avoided questioning on the subject. It was only several days later that President Goodluck Johnathan addressed them at all. Before he did so another attack by Boko Haram in the same state was repelled by the Nigerian Army. Further attacks have followed.

Just as Western silence is continuing a pattern of ignorance on Africa the Nigerian silence reflects a history of religious tension in the country itself. Northern concerns over a Southern (Christian) turn to the West are matched by Southern concerns over a Northern (Muslim) turn to fundamentalism. Where one side fears Sharia Law the other fears the importation of Western values and education. These concerns are not new and have existed since the British colonial period.

It is notable then that President Goodluck Johnathan is a Christian of the south and that Boko Haram is an Islamist group that has mostly targeted northern Muslim regions. Is this the reason for the Nigerian silence? It would not be the first time that President Johnathan has discriminated against Muslim Nigerians. In the run up to elections this year he has been accused of stoking ethno-religious tensions to gain the Christian vote.

What role this has played in American support is unclear. Aid and Development programs seem unaffected however American training programs for Nigerian security forces have been cancelled. Whether this is enough to combat Boko Haram is debatable however. Christian Nigerian leaders seem unwilling to fully accept the challenge so long as it remains in Muslim regions and just as crucially the Nigerian army has a record of retreating in the face of attacks. Low morale and low supplies are often cited as the cause. If Nigeria won’t commit to the fight then undoubtedly America sees no reason to pick up the slack. They shouldn’t have to and Nigeria should send clear signals that it is ready to commit to receive the aid it needs to succeed.

The inevitable questions though revolve around what lies in store. The current government offers no promise of improving the security situation or in reconciling ethno-religious differences. This is a critical mistake that will spell further trouble for the region and for the country. While the fighting remains in the north it is easier to ignore it but how long will it be before the insurgency targets the oil rich south? Oil is the backbone of the Nigerian economy and the United States is its largest trading partner. Even if Boko Haram is defeated the causes of the conflict will remain. Far from religious, the conflict is driven by economic disparity. The insurgency is already founded on unemployed youth and a disinterested government. Just as the government does not appear to be changing its stance any time soon. The economic realities will only be made worse by a quickly increasing northern Muslim population that will be disproportionately impoverished compared to the oil rich southern Christian population. Already the main source of recruitment for Boko Haram these realities will escalate any conflict until they are dealt with.

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