13 May 2014

West Africa: Boko Haram - How Real Is the Threat to West Africa?

Photo: Deutsche Welle
#BringBackOurGirls protest.

Monrovia — Back in March when Frank Nyekan, the Director Designate to head the Executive Protective Services (EPS), declared at his confirmation that the Boko-Haram threat in next-door Nigeria was real and had to potential to slip under the radar of the post-war nation, many slammed Nyekan as inflating the threat to boost his confirmation.

Noted Nyekan: "Terrorism is spreading now. Nobody needs to tell you that Boko-Haram is next door in Nigeria. Some are using Liberia as a sleep-out where they come and sleep when they do their thing. They come as Nigerian businessmen to sleep after a period of time; they lost and returned to Nigeria. "

"They commit the act, when they are being searched for, they run to Liberia. From Liberia to Nigeria is not far. You have to look at it critically because the election is coming; you need protection here and at home. There is a need for some kind of legislation that will protect Legislators."

More than a month later, the threat appears to be growing in Nigeria with the potential to strike fear in other countries around the region.

The recent abduction of some 270 schoolgirls in the Nigerian town of Chibok has drawn international condemnation with several celebrities and international stakeholders taking keen interest in the threat. The United States of America have finally dispatched forces to help mount pursuit of Boko Haram even as the watchdog group, Amnesty International report that the Nigerian military had more than four hours' warning of the raid by Boko Haram militants.

Fifty-three of the girls escaped soon after being seized in Chibok on 14 April but more than 200 remain captive. Nigeria's authorities say they "doubt the veracity" of the Amnesty report. "If the government was aware [beforehand] there would have been an intervention [against the militants]," Nigerian Information Minister Labaran Maku told BBC World TV.

The closest the threat has come outside Nigeria is next-door Cameroun where gunmen linked to Boko Haram in February abducted a French Family from northern Cameroon. Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau later said in a video message that the kidnapping was in retaliation for Nigeria's arrest of Boko Haram members.

More recently, the insurgents seized a French priest from the same region. While the militants have extended their reach beyond northeastern Nigeria, some observers remain cautious about connections with Al-Qaeda.

Those reports have yet to be proven, although a top Nigerian military official, army chief Oluseyi Petinrin, declared in 2012 that the group had been tied to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Niger's Foreign Minister Mohamed Bazoum also said last year that Boko Haram had acquired bomb-making techniques from Al-Qaeda. That could mean, regions outside Nigeria benefiting from U.S. interests and support could become targets.

This could be why US Secretary of State John Kerry's announcement last week that a US team has been dispatched to Nigeria to assist in the hunt for more than 200 abducted schoolgirls included a twist. "We are also going to do everything possible to counter the menace of Boko Haram," Kerry said.

General Carter Ham, a former commander of US Africa Command, Africom, suggested recently that Boko Haram could be a copycat of Al Qaeda and wants to emulate al-Qaida and attack the US.

But how real is the Boko Haram threat? Could the feared insurgents surfaced in other West African nations as Nyekan fears? Do they have the financial muscle and ability to fight off mounting international pressure in the wake of a bounty now on its leader, Abubakar Shekau's head?

Elizabeth Donnelly, the deputy head of the Africa programme at Chatham House was quoted as saying recently that the "Boko Haram issue is a Nigerian, local problem at present more than a regional one. "This is not to rule out the potential for transformation, but it has focused its efforts inside the country. I would be cautious on links to AQIM - this is likely less formalized than the word suggests," But Nigeria's own Joint Task Force (JTF) has come under criticism for alleged rights violations. Amnesty International said it had gathered evidence of the deaths of at least 950 people in military custody in the first half of 2013 in the northeastern cities of Maiduguri, in Borno State, and Damaturu, in Yobe State. The deaths allegedly took place during operations meant to counter the Boko Haram threat.

Boko Haram is an Islamic militant and terrorist organization based in the northeast of Nigeria. Founded by Mohammed Yusuf in 2002, the organization seeks to establish a "pure" Islamic state ruled by Sharia Law putting a stop to what it deems "Westernization." The group is known for attacking Christians and government targets, bombing churches, attacking schools and police stations, kidnapping western tourists, but has also assassinated members of the Islamic establishment.

Over the last decade, the group's uprising has targeted schools, churches, weddings and police stations, but several efforts by security and military operations in Nigeria have failed to put the insurgents in check. Recent Violence linked to the Boko Haram insurgency has resulted in an estimated 10,000 deaths between 2001 and 2013.

In Liberia, some are beginning to wonder whether Nyekan's warning could have some legs due to Liberia's porous border and economically vulnerable, especially low-paid security personnel, many of whom have been compromised in a number of drug trafficking cases, conniving with traffickers to allow drug carriers to slip into the country.

Said Nyekan at his confirmation hearing: "Anybody can walk here now with a pen Knife to attack any of you Legislators. Even if you cannot give them a weapon, give them advanced training in anti-terrorism and crowd control. This place is vulnerable; this Capitol Hill holds the three branches of government."

For now, international experts and stakeholders are holding to the notion that Boko Haram is a Nigeria problem, owed in part to that Nigeria has done a poor job confronting the deep poverty and alienation that many people in parts of the Muslim north of the country feel, is key to defeating the terrorists' insurgency.

Others say, the Nigerian army's brutal counter-insurgency campaign has strengthened Boko Haram and complicated American military assistance. What is clear for now is that Boko Haram's abduction of the schoolgirls has thrust the violence in Nigeria onto the world diplomatic stage and given the U.S. and the rest of the world, reasons to pay attention.

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