August 10, 2014

Boko Haram: The West Intervenes

Yohannan Chemarapally

IT took more than a month for the international community to wake up to the plight of the more than 200 girls kidnapped by the Nigerian Islamist group, Boko Haram. Pictures of the American First Lady, Michelle Obama and leading show business personalities with posters demanding freedom for the girls has finally galvanised public opinion world wide. The “Bring Back our Girls” campaign had originated in Nigeria soon after the incident happened. The Nigerian army has so far failed miserably either to rescue the girls or prevent more Boko Haram atrocities in the north east of the country. The group in fact carried out another car bomb attack in the second week of May in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, killing more than a dozen people. A week later, a suicide bomber attacked the Christian quarters of the northern city of Kano, killing half a dozen people. Since the beginning of the year, more than 1500 people have been killed in Boko Haram attacks. The Nigerian security forces too have reacted harshly, killing civilians suspected of sympathising with the Boko Haram. The Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, under fire for his inept handling of the situation, has now asked for help from non-African countries to combat the Islamists. The US, France, Britain, Israel and China have sent in advisers. In retaliation, the Boko Haram was quick to target a Chinese factory across the border in Cameroon, killing two Chinese nationals and kidnapping an unspecified number in the third week of May. The US has already deployed drones and other surveillance aircrafts over northern Nigeria and surrounding areas to locate the missing girls and monitor the movements of the Islamist insurgents. American military advisers are on the ground in Nigeria advising the Nigerian army on counter-insurgency tactics. TERROR ESCALATION Even before the recent escalation of Boko Haram terrorism, the US was closely cooperating with Nigeria, deploying drones in the neighbouring state of Niger for counter-terror surveillance activities. The US had signed an agreement with the Niger government in 2013 to deploy around 300 military personnel along with drones and maintenance crews in the West African country. The Obama administration, according to American media reports, has come to the conclusion that the Nigerian army on its own is not in a position to rescue the kidnapped girls. The Pentagon’s principal director for African Affairs, Alice Friend told a US Congressional Committee that the Nigerian army faces the “same challenges with corruption that every other institution in Nigeria does”. She openly doubted the capability of the Nigerian army to mount a successful rescue mission even if “actionable evidence” of the whereabouts of the kidnapped girls was to be provided to the authorities there. In the second week of May, troops in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State where the Boko Haram is most active, fired shots at their commanding officer. The soldiers had held the officer responsible for the deaths of many of their comrades at the hands of the Boko Haram. Prominent American lawmakers, like Senator John McCain, known for their penchant for US military intervention worldwide, have been demanding that President Obama order the deployment of American troops into Nigeria to rescue the kidnapped girls. The school girls were last seen in a Boko Haram video released in the first week of May. They were seen wearing hijab and reciting verses from the Quran. In another video released earlier, the Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, was seen railing against girls being sent to school in particular and western education in general. He threatened to get the girls forcibly married off if the Nigerian government did not agree to release hundreds of Boko Haram fighters and activists held in Nigerian prisons. Shekau, who is acquiring a larger than life persona, was declared dead three times by the Nigerian authorities. Yet after every spectacular terrorist act, he appears on video to mock the Nigerian government. Now the American, French, British and Israeli security agencies have stepped in to do the job for the Nigerian government. The Nigerian president has flatly refused to countenance the release of prisoners in exchange for the freedom of the kidnapped girls. President Jonathan who was in Paris to attend an emergency summit hosted by the French president on May 17, once again reiterated his refusal to negotiate with the Boko Haram on the issue. The Obama administration has strongly indicated that it is against the release of Boko Haram detainees or the payment of ransom in exchange for the release of the girls. At the same time, western military strategists also admit that rescuing the girls from the clutches of the Boko Haram is going to be an extremely difficult task, given the remoteness and ruggedness of the terrain. The girls by now would also have been separated into smaller groups, making the task of rescuing them even more fraught with danger. Also in attendance in Paris were the presidents of Chad, Niger, Cameroon and Benin. These countries are Francophone West African states and have been under French influence since their independence. The Nigerian president, according to the French media, had asked for the emergency meeting. The French have traditionally viewed much of sub-Saharan Africa to be under their sphere of influence. While cooperating closely with the American in counter-terrorism matters, the French are also wary at the growing unilateral military footprint of the Americans in the continent. Cameroon, Niger and Chad share a border with Nigeria. Boko Haram fighters have been using these porous borders to their advantage. Boko Haram terrorism has claimed the lives of more than 6000 people in the last five years. French citizens have already been targeted in Cameroon by the group. Cameroon had till recently viewed the Boko Haram as a problem confined to the territory of its larger neighbour. Nigeria has been complaining that the Boko Haram uses the remote parts of northern Cameroon as a base to recoup and escape from the pursuing army. But the spurt in Boko Haram activities coupled with bloodletting in the Central African Republic (CAR) another country with which Cameroon shares a border, have led to an influx of refugees from the north and the south. Cameroon also has a territorial dispute with Nigeria which had soured relations. But Cameroon, no doubt pressured by the French, has now decided to cooperate with Nigeria. Paris is also worried about the security of the uranium mines it controls in Niger. There have been clashes between the army and militants having links with Boko Haram earlier in the year. The Islamist upsurge in Mali last year had threatened to spill over to Niger which also has a sizeable Tuareg population. French military intervention in Mali had stopped the Islamists in the north of the country from toppling the central government. However, it was the French inspired NATO intervention in Libya three years ago that gave a fillip to Islamist militant groups all over the region. Sophisticated weapons from the armoury of the ousted Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi’s armoury, reached all the way to Nigeria in the south and to the Gaza Strip in the north. The continuing chaos and anarchy in Libya three years after western military intervention in Libya and the strong presence of Islamist militias in the country have provided hope and succour to groups like the Boko Haram. But the French still feel that they are still duty bound to protect their former colonies. The French already have a permanent military presence in many of their former African colonies, including Mali, Niger and Chad. The presidents of these countries owe their political relevance to the French. The French President, Francois Hollande, speaking after the recent meeting, said that the six countries have decided to adopt “a general and regional action plan” to combat terrorism in the West African region for the medium as well as the long term. The French president said there would be “intelligence coordination, sharing of information, centralisation of means, border surveillance” among the six. Hollande said that the threat posed by terror groups is a serious one and is a danger not only for the region but to Europe as well. The Nigerian president while endorsing the view of his French counterpart averred that only a “regional approach” would be able to address the problems. “Without West African countries coming together, we will not be able to crush the terrorists”, he said in Paris. The meeting was attended by senior officials from major Western European countries and the US. Nigeria, the country with the biggest GDP in Africa and a leading member of the African Union (AU) now finds itself in a position of asking for foreign military help to tackle a domestic insurgency. Nigeria had the proud privilege of leading many peace keeping forces on the African continent, including the ECOWAS (the Community of West African States) peace keeping force to Liberia and Sierra Leone. The AU till a few years back had frowned on the deployment of European and American troops on African soil. Peace keeping and counter-insurgency missions were led by African countries themselves. AMERICAN MILITARY INTERVENTION DICTATED BY HYDRO-CARBON DEPOSITS The US Africa Command (AFRICOM) that was set up during the last days of the Bush presidency has been desperately looking for permanent military basing facilities on the African continent. Africom headquarters are still located in Stuttgart, Germany and it has a small military base in Djibouti, a small country located in the Horn of Africa region. Africom also has a civilian component that provided so called needy African nations with “humanitarian” aid and “good governance”. India is actively partnering with US agencies in spreading “democracy” and “good governance” to many African countries. But with countries like Nigeria now willing to openly provide Africom a military toe hold, the parallel American pivot to Africa has received a major fillip. Africom already has 18 forward operating bases on the continent with American troops advising the armies of Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and other countries. The American troop presence on the continent is the largest since the failed military intervention in Somalia in the early nineties. The Africom Commander, Gen. David Rodriguez in a testimony to the US Congress said that American military intervention on the African continent was largely dictated by hydro-carbon and other rich mineral deposits that are yet to be exploited. “Africa’s increasing importance to allies and emerging powers, including China, India and Brazil, provides opportunities to reinforce US security objectives in other regions through our engagement with the continent”, Gen. Rodriguez told the Congressional Committee. Rodriguez told the US Congress last year that American military had carried out 546 “activities” on the continent, up from 172 in 2008 when the Africom was founded. The activities ranged from training the armed forces of many countries to carrying out “special-ops” in countries like Somalia and Uganda. In Somalia, the US forces are battling the al Shabab and hunting for Joseph Kony of the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda and neighbouring countries. The US Special forces have been unsuccessful in tracking down the elusive leader of the LRA. The American social media had erupted into frenzy after a video “Kony2012” was released on line detailing the atrocities committed by the LRA and its leader. Hollywood celebrities and others had joined in a high profile campaign that persuaded the Obama administration to send in troops to Uganda to hunt for Kony. The LRA had become notorious worldwide for their brutality towards civilians and the use of child soldiers. The US wants to use the anti-terror campaign in Africa to gain strategic control over the flow of natural resource to countries like China. One-third of China’s oil imports are from Africa and the country is emerging as the continent’s top trading partner and investor. The Chinese Prime Minister, Li Keqiang was in Abuja in the first week of May to attend the World Economic Forum on Africa meet hosted by Nigeria. The Chinese Premier offered to invest more than $13 billion to upgrade the Nigerian rail system along with help to locate the missing school children.