Obama singles out Boko Haram and Nigeria declares 'total war' on shadowy group

Yet in his West Point speech, the US president said that no American operation can solve every problem like the Nigerian insurgency.

Akintunde Akinleye/FILE
At a protest in Lagos, Nigeria, earlier this month, a protester expressed religious unity in a placard calling for the release of more than 200 secondary school girls abducted in the remote village of Chibok.

A day after US President Barack Obama singled out the Nigerian extremist group Boko Haram in his keystone West Point speech, the president of Nigeria vowed to wage “total war” against the group.

With more than 250 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls still held by Boko Haram, Mr. Obama said at the Wednesday graduation ceremony that he is ready, at the request of Congress, to appropriate $5 billion to help deal with diffuse new local terrorists in Africa such as the shadowy Nigerian extremists.

Today, President Goodluck Jonathan said in a televised speech to his nation that he ordered the military to use “any means necessary under the law” to fight Boko Haram, which has sown chaos and fear in the country's northeast with the intent of destabilizing Mr. Jonathan’s administration and creating an Islamic caliphate in the north.

In the space of two short weeks, Jonathan has shifted from calling Boko Haram a marginal and parochial group scarcely worth his attention to labeling it a global threat of nearly apocalyptic proportions that is closely tied to Al Qaeda. At a recent Paris gathering, he told world leaders that the self-described Islamist group is “the new frontier of the global war on terrorism against … our way of life.”

Yet despite Jonathan’s words, official confusion and public anger continues in Nigeria over the girls and their whereabouts, and whether the government should negotiate with Boko Haram.

Moreover, Western analysts, including the Africa desk at the State Department, argue that Boko Haram is a local group with at best thin ties to Al Qaeda, and that while they act in the name of Islam they do not represent it. 

Former US Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell sees Jonathan’s new framing of the threat as a way to “whitewash" “the human rights violations and excesses of Nigeria’s Army and security forces" that some Nigeria watchers say is an important part of the crisis. 

(Reuters yesterday in a lengthy piece questions any serious ties between Boko Haram and Al Qaeda, pointing out that ostensible leader of Al Qaeda Ayman al-Zawahiri has never mentioned the group.) 

What Obama outlined in his speech about America's leadership at a time of a changing world order represents both a military and social dimension to counterterrorism. As he told the graduating class of America’s oldest and most prestigious military school: “Tragically, no American security operation can eradicate the threat posed by an extremist group like Boko Haram. That is why we must focus both on rescuing those girls, but also on supporting Nigerian efforts to educate its youth.”

In Nigeria, the confusion on Boko Haram, which seeks to create an Islamic caliphate in northeast Nigeria, was amplified this week.

On Monday came a statement by the Nigerian Army chief Alex Badeh that the 300 girls kidnapped in mid-April were found.

For many in and out of Nigeria who follow hash tag #bringbackourgirls, that was taken as great news – even though Mr. Badeh qualified his news by saying the girls can’t be rescued, or easily rescued, since to do so could bring about their deaths.

Yet by Tuesday, Nigeria was officially dialing back the claim, with chief government spokesman Reuben Abati saying the girls' whereabouts may not be known after all. Mr. Abati said that “the context” of global pressure on the Nigerian Army had caused its chief to make an exaggerated claim “in order to restore confidence” in the military.

Yesterday, an official from Nigeria's Borno state said that four more of the girls who were kidnapped while taking exams at a remote school last month had escaped, though he suggested that it did not happen recently. 

Since 2009, following a mass killing of Boko Haram members by Nigerian forces, the group has waged an increasingly brutal insurgency in the northeast. The conflict got even bloodier after Jonathan declared a state of emergency in the region a year ago last May. 

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.