Thursday, January 23, 2014

Boko Haram's threat to the world

Rescuers remove the body of a victim of the 2011 bombing
of UN office in Abuja by Boko Haram
Residents of the northeastern Nigerian city of Alau report that 19 people were brutally murdered and hundreds of homes torched there on Sunday. Last week, a car bomb tore through a heavily populated market in nearby Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, severely injuring or killing at least 20 people.

Borno is no stranger to carnage. Nigerians ironically dub the state the "Home of Peace." Recent events in the region have received little media coverage, and most observers deem it par for the course when the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram claims credit.

Since 2009, when these organized assaults began, the Nigerian federal government has attempted to respond with proficiency. Abuja has variously offered amnesty to Boko fighters; retaliated with (sometimes overly assertive) force; and, when left with no other choice, installed martial law on an emergency basis.

As the world globalizes, jihadist factions such as Boko Haram align in-kind and gain both the intelligence and the capacity to strike in increasingly urban centers and beyond national borders. We must make no mistake: This destabilizing network is a global problem, larger in scope and indeed in mission than the international community may presume. It is not just going to go away.
What fuels Boko Haram is not merely economic inequality and social unrest. The group's rise has not been solely due to the decline of traditional industries in northeastern Nigeria, nor lack of access to quality education and steady electricity. These factors no doubt add to general disaffection and Boko's recruitment efforts. But the group poses a far graver challenge, one that could take down a nation.

Harvard professor Stephen M. Walt recently claimed that one of the more powerful forces in the milieu of world affairs is nationalism. Based on the few broadcasts that documented the men, women and children fleeing the scene in Maiduguri last week, he's right. We must denounce as well as understand that Boko Haram has undertaken its four-year campaign for that very reason: to forge a militant Islamic state by any means necessary.

Boko Haram's notorious acts of insurgency, which have claimed the lives of more than 12,000 people since 1999, persist unchecked by international forces that could do something about them. The violence stands in stark contrast to recent economic reports that point to Nigeria as a responsible ascendant to the forefront of global markets. Such ongoing bloodshed despite our ambitions is a tragic smear on Nigeria's reputation. Projections of the M.I.N.T. (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, Turkey) must draw scrutiny when such a vital region of our country is synonymous with instability and outright fear.

It is only lately that our international partners have taken a forward position on the matter. In July 2013, the U.K. formally designated Boko Haram a terrorist organization, with the U.S. following suit in November. Boko thus joins a list that includes al Qaeda, Hamas, the Real Irish Republican Army and many others. Boko Haram's guerilla command may now be engaged effectively, by global partners that have created legal paths to work in concert with Nigeria's military and counter-terror forces.

There is no more prudent time to do so than now. The export of both Boko Haram's mission and its operatives appears to have been underway for some time. The United Nations refugee agencies estimate that more than 8,000 people in Nigeria have fled to neighboring Cameroon to escape the escalating brutality. Just last week the world witnessed Cameroonian forces involved in fighting between Nigeria's army and Boko Haram in a border town in Cameroon. In that skirmish, at least one woman was killed on Cameroonian soil and five others wounded.

Nigeria's military is ill-equipped for drawn-out warfare and, despite their best efforts, have made strategic missteps along the way. The military's unpreparedness has been no more prevalent than in their interrogational tactics. Soldiers rounding up thousands of civilians arbitrarily, on mere suspicion of having helped the militants, and sometimes meting out cruel treatment thereafter, are causing increasing disquiet and hurting their battle for hearts and minds.

In light of the mounting terror, there is a growing recognition that Nigeria must look at other options of engagement, and work hand-in-hand with an organized network of allies to do so. Left unabated by the international community, any progress made by Nigeria's military alone will surely be short-lived. As Elizabeth Donnelly from the Africa program at Chatham House eloquently put it, Boko Haram has a tested "flexibility, to adapt and come back."

Nigeria is a bountiful, diverse nation with the potential to be on the socio-economic rise. Its citizens are a people of tolerance, known for their hospitality, and it possesses both established and newfound bevies of resources. All the tools are in place for Nigeria to serve as a symbol of potential across Africa. Boko Haram could ruin all of that, and is trying.

Global efforts must be taken, if not in the interest of emerging-market prosperity, then in order to understand the nature and intentions of this layered, multi-faceted threat and to help check it. In tandem with the international community, Nigeria can ultimately return peace to its home.

Author: Orji Uzor Kalu, the governor of Nigeria's Abia State from 1999 to 2007, and a presidential candidate in 2007. This article was first published in The Wall Street Journal
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