Nigeria's lesson in battling terrorists

With an election this past March and a new president taking power, Nigeria illustrates how a democracy stands up for its values against terrorist groups like Boko Haram.

AP Photo
Binta Ibrahim and an unidentified child are among those women and girls recently rescued by Nigerian soldiers from Boko Haram in the Sambisa Forest.

The United States has declassified a list of 39 English-language books found in the home of Osama bin Laden, the Al Qaeda leader killed in 2011. One tome in particular, by global policy think tank RAND Corp., advises societies threatened by Islamic terror to affirm core democratic values, such as freedom of conscience and equality before the law. Like other terrorists, the mastermind of 9/11 must have wanted to better understand his main opponents – those who uphold democracy. 

Nearly 14 years after 9/11, at least a half-dozen countries are still under siege from Islamic militants. Three of them, Syria, Libya, and Iraq, have little or no democracy and are threatened by Islamic State. Afghanistan, which just had its first peaceful democratic transfer of power, is doing better against the Taliban, although with Western help. The Afghan Army now knows better which universal values it stands for.

Then there is Nigeria and its fight against Boko Haram. Last year, the terrorist group took over much of the northeast, declared an Islamic caliphate, abducted hundreds of girls and women, and triggered mass desertions in the Nigerian Army.

But then Nigeria, which restored its democracy 15 years ago, held an election in March. The incumbent president, Goodluck Jonathan, felt political heat to roll back Boko Haram and its threat to the country’s values. Last year, he replaced the military’s top brass. He asked for military assistance from neighboring countries, Niger, Chad, and Cameroon, as well as an elite corps of foreign mercenaries. The Army purchased better weapons to fight an insurgency. It adjusted its tactics and put hundreds of soldiers and officers on trial for desertion.

A democracy, by the very strength of its values, can rise up to defend itself. President Jonathan felt pressure from the populace to act. And the military, made more aware of its accountability to civilian rule, gained new discipline and focus.

Yet the president’s turnaround did not come quickly enough for him to win reelection. A former military general, Muhammadu Buhari, convinced a majority of voters that he could do better against Boko Haram. On May 29 he will take power in a peaceful succession.

Since the election two months ago, the military has taken back much territory and rescued nearly 1,000 girls and women. Boko Haram’s forces appear to be on the run, although they might be able to regroup or conduct individual terrorist attacks.

The incoming president is now left with completing two big tasks: the liberation of more than 200 schoolgirls abducted from Chibok last year and the capture or killing of Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau. Nigerians might not reelect Mr. Buhari if he fails.

Nigeria’s progress is an important lesson about the importance of democracy for other countries coping with Islamic terrorists. If African’s most-populous nation can keep on winning against Boko Haram, perhaps someday its story can end up in a book kept on the shelf of a terrorist leader. It will be necessary reading on what he is up against.

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