A version of this post will appear on Africa and Asia. The views expressed are the author's own.
Nigeria must shortly agree to accept Western help in locating and rescuing the 250 or so teen-age girls abducted last month by Boko Haram, the shadowy terrorist Al Qaeda-linked terrorist movement that has been killing boys, burning schools, pillaging villages, destroying churches, and setting off bombs in the nation’s capital. Another eight school girls were taken yesterday.
President Obama, with teen-age girls of his own, has called Boko Haram’s capture of girls an “outrage.” So has UK Prime Minister David Cameron and President Yoweri Muserveni of Uganda. Together with US Secretary of State John Kerry, they have all offered assistance to Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan.
Although seemingly reluctant to admit that Nigeria cannot handle the Boko Haram crisis alone, President Jonathan is now under such internal popular pressure, as well as criticism from abroad, that he needs now to accept American, British, and African aid.
Western nations can deploy satellites to pinpoint the precise whereabouts of Boko Haram bases and the likely location of the abductees. (The US State Department reports the girls had been taken into Cameroon.) The West has the equipment to intercept communications between Boko Haram operatives. Their drones can photograph suspicious Boko Haram movements and provide that kind of intelligence to the poorly matched Nigerian security forces.
If requested, the Americans or the Britons would also be able to supply small contingents of advisors capable of sharpening Nigerian skills in unconventional warfare. British special forces were essential to ending the Sierra Leonean civil war in the 1990s. American soldiers are now helping Uganda pursue the Lord’s Resistance Army into the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic. They also supply vital intelligence (some from drones and satellites) to African forces battling the al-Shabaab Islamist rebels in Somalia and Kenya.
As a prominent Nigerian blog-site editorialized this week, “there is need for an urgent robust military intervention to bring those girls home. The way forward, therefore, is for Jonathan to stop playing the ostrich and making Nigeria the laughing stock on the international community.”
The blog went on to say that “the activities of Boko Haram reveal in bold relief the declining capacity of the Nigerian state to adequately fulfill its security and economic responsibilities to its citizens.” The blog-site further called Jonathan “clueless on how to confront the growing insecurity that is enveloping the country.”
Jonathan on Tuesday appointed a committee of officials to think about how to find the missing girls, but did little more.
But now he will have to do much more if he is to save his failing presidency, satisfy the pleas of the nation (and his wife), and respond meaningfully to what is a severe national crisis of political will.
In addition to grasping the hands of security assistance that have been offered by the West, Jonathan also needs urgently to persuade neighboring Cameroon, Niger, and Chad to close their borders and begin apprehending Boko Haram militants (and the abducted girls).
Jonathan and some of his military chiefs profess not to know where the girls are, and how to recover them.
But most Nigerians, and the governor of Borno State, the locus of Boko Haram depredations, are sure that the girls have been taken into the Sambisa Forest on the Borno border with Cameroon, as well as across Lake Chad into Chad.
Like the Taliban in Afghanistan, Boko Haram persists by raiding Nigerians and then fleeing to “safe” encampments across the nearby borders, including those of Niger.
“Haram” is “forbidden” in Arabic and Hausa, the Northern Nigerian lingua franca. Boko conveys the sense that Western education and culture is “Haram.” Thus Abubakar Shekau, its leader, said this week that his men had kidnapped the girls because (as in Taliban belief) they should not be in school and, instead, should be given in marriage to youthful Boko Haram recruits or sold for a pittance to anyone who wanted them.
Such nihilism is as abhorrent to Nigerians as it is to Westerners. So, even among the dedicated 90 million-strong Muslim population of northern Nigeria, is Boko Haram’s creating of daily mayhem, killing 1500 civilians this year, and now stealing girls. This is not a movement with any popular support.
If Jonathan swallows his pride and asks for help from neighbors and allies in Washington and London, Boko Haram can be neutralized and the girls recovered.
If he continues to stall inexplicably or tries to negotiate with Boko Haram, however, the trail of the girls will grow cold and the chance of ever facing down the militants will become that much harder.