Can the US help Nigeria confront Boko Haram?

For years, Nigeria was Washington DC's most important strategic partner on issues of security and stability in Africa. But, Boko Haram, and Abuja’s response, has put that partnership in jeopardy.

Sunday Alamba/AP/File
Martha Mark, the mother of kidnapped school girl Monica Mark cries as she displays her photo, in the family house, in Chibok, Nigeria May 19. In a new video released Oct. 31, the leader of Nigeria's Islamic extremist group Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau dashed hopes for a prisoner exchange to get the girls released.

A version of this post originally appeared on Africa in Transition. The views expressed are the author's own. 

For a long time Nigeria was Washington’s most important strategic partner on issues of security and stability in Africa. But, the Boko Haram insurgency and Abuja’s response to it has put that partnership in jeopardy. The movement and the Nigerian government’s failed response to it pose a dilemma for the Obama administration.

On the one hand, Boko Haram is repellent, regularly resorting to terror against the highly vulnerable, including the murder and kidnapping of young people in school. On the other hand, the official security forces carry out atrocities against the local population, and the government has thus far failed to address the drivers of the insurgency, including political marginalization, accelerating impoverishment, and rampant corruption. This state of affairs has allowed Boko Haram to ramp up its military campaign in 2014, having killed over 3,600 civilians and seizing control of more than 10 towns in northeast Nigeria. Boko Haram has also carried out cross-border operations, notably in northern Cameroon. 

My new Council Special Report (CSR), US Policy to Counter Nigeria’s Boko Haram, analyzes the domestic political context of Boko Haram and its threat to the Nigerian state, especially looking towards the upcoming February 2015 national elections. It provides an “anatomy” of Boko Haram, including its goals, structure, and activities, while acknowledging how little about it is known. It criticizes the Nigerian government’s response to Boko Haram, especially its unwillingness to address rampant human rights abuses by the security services that help drive popular support or acquiescence for Boko Haram.

The report divides its recommendations to the Obama administration into short and long term goals. With respect to the former, it urges the Obama administration to press Abuja privately and publicly on human rights and the necessity for genuinely free and fair elections, and to facilitate and support humanitarian assistance in northern Nigeria.

Perhaps more controversially in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the US facility in Benghazi and the death of the US ambassador, it urges that the Obama administration proceed with establishing a consulate in Kano, the largest and most important city in northern Nigeria. Such a facility would among other things constitute US outreach to Africa’s largest Muslim population which is increasingly alienated from the Abuja government and, likely, the United States.

Over the long term, the report urges the Obama administration to support Nigerians working for human rights and democracy, to aggressively use its power to revoke US visas in response to financial crimes in an environment of flagrant corruption, and to encourage the reformation of the “culture” of the military and the police, whose interaction with the general population is too often brutal.

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