“Boko Haram is no longer a local terrorist group, it is operating clearly as an Al-Qaeda operation, it is an al-Qaeda of West Africa.” These were the words uttered by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan during a news conference held in the French capital, Paris, on 17 May. The media briefing followed an earlier African security summit, coordinated and hosted by France, where the governments of Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, Benin and Chad, pledged better regional cooperation in the fight against Boko Haram. In turn, the French government and its UK, US and EU counterparts, committed to provide logistical and technical support to regional initiatives aimed at uprooting the Islamist sect.
The ‘Boko Haram plan of action’ formulated at the summit was by no means earth-shattering or unprecedented. Speaking during a security conference in Abuja in February, French President Francois Hollande similarly promised his country’s support to Nigeria’s armed campaign against Boko Haram. “Your struggle is also our struggle,” President Hollande told delegates, further adding “We will always stand ready not only to provide our political support but our help every time you need it because the struggle against terrorism is also the struggle for democracy.”During the same address, the French president also urged for greater regional cooperation between Nigeria and its neighbouring countries —many of which may already be experiencing contagion from the Boko Haram insurgency.
However, what was unique about the 17 May summit was that it marked one of the first occasions that the Nigerian government had explicitly associated Boko Haram with the transnationalist terrorist al-Qaeda network. In all fairness, such linkages are not without merit. From reports suggesting that sect members trained and even fought alongside al-Qaeda’s North African branch in Mali, to accounts that Boko Haram may have been supported Osama Bin Laden himself, evidence linking the Nigerian militant group to al-Qaeda is plentiful. But such claims are hardly new to the Boko Haram discourse and, one would assume, would have been investigated by the Nigerian government upon first mention. So why would Jonathan only now publically label Boko Haram as an al-Qaeda offshoot? For one, by doing so, he may have potentially earned himself and his government a rather unlikely saviour.
The Chibok kidnapping has drawn widespread attention to Boko Haram’s near decade-long insurgency against the Nigerian government; an insurgency which has killed at least 2,000 people this year alone. Moreover, the incident has also placed a rather harsh spotlight on the Jonathan administration and the role it has played in the ensuing carnage. In doing so, a tale of chronic governmental neglect in north eastern Nigeria — Boko Haram’s birthplace and primary area of operation — has come to the fore. Out of Nigeria’s six administrative zones, the country’s north east has the highest unemployment and poverty rates; human development indices which some argue are important indicators for the development of conflict and terrorism by non-state groups.
Prevailing narratives also present the story of an unprofessional and ill-disciplined military who have committed gross human rights abuses in combating the sect. Extortion, extrajudicial killings of civilians and the abduction and subsequent assault of Boko Haram wives and children, have seemingly become part and parcel of the army’s counterinsurgency strategy. In this regard, the army has not only failed to win the trust of local communities, essential to the success of any counterinsurgency campaign, but may have unknowingly aided Boko Haram in its recruitment. Then there are also those accounts which claim that the Islamist insurgency is being used as a pawn in a game of political chess — a perpetual and often ruthless game played between Nigeria’s opposing southern and northern political blocs. A game which has all too often resulted in significant collateral damage.
However, by designating Boko Haram as being northing more than an al-Qaeda proxy, Jonathan has pretty much absolved his beleaguered government of its role in the spiraling conflict. Issues of poor governance, systemic bureaucratic corruption and an ill-disciplined military, which should be central to the Boko Haram discourse, will now be concealed in the shadow cast by the global (and thankfully non-Nigerian) bogeyman. Boko Haram’s actions in the past, present and foreseeable future, will be contextualised to no more than a symptom of al-Qaeda’s global war on a democracy — a war which solely aims to displace democratic governance with a repressive and archaic rule of law which deems western education to be forbidden, commands women to be stoned for adultery and which orders the execution of apostates. A war which the armies of superpowers such as the US, UK and France are struggling to contain.
By telling the world that he is now fighting al-Qaeda and not merely Boko Haram — a global as opposed to a Nigerian enemy —Jonathan may not only be trying to save face. Indeed, he may also be attempting to convince an ever-critical domestic and international audience that his government is actually the unlikely hero in a war which to date has only known victims and villains.