Africa, Economy & Trade, Environment, Global Governance, Headlines, Human Rights, Natural Resources, North America

U.S. Condemns Boko Haram Attacks

WASHINGTON, Jan 24 2012 (IPS) - The U.S. State Department Tuesday “strongly” condemned recent lethal attacks carried out by the Islamist group Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, but also warned against an excessive reaction by the government’s security forces.

The attacks against government and other facilities in Kano, the north’s economic capital, and Bauchi state killed at least 185 people and renewed fears here that Africa’s biggest oil exporter and most populous nation is becoming dangerously unstable.

They followed nationwide strikes and demonstrations that forced President Goodluck Johnson to partially restore fuel subsidies that had been abruptly cut by the government earlier this month.

The latest attacks by Boko Haram were the deadliest in a campaign of violence that, since it began in July 2009, has taken a total of at least 935 lives, according to a briefing paper also released Tuesday by Human Rights Watch (HRW), which denounced the group’s attacks as “indefensible”.

Nigeria, the dominant power in West Africa and the oil- and gas-rich Gulf of Guinea, provides the United States with about eight percent of its total oil imports, making it Washington’s biggest trading partner on the African continent.

It is also one of only three sub-Saharan African countries – along with South Africa and Angola, another major oil exporter – with which the administration of President Barack Obama has established high- level bi-national commissions.

While security in the oil-producing Niger Delta region has long dominated U.S. concerns about Nigeria’s stability, the emergence of Boko Haram, whose name has been translated as “Western education is sacrilege”, in the predominantly Muslim northern part of the country has sparked growing concern, particularly in the Pentagon and its four-year-old Africa Command, or AFRICOM.

In his first visit to Nigeria as AFRICOM commander last August, Gen. Cater Ham charged that Boko Haram had made contacts with Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) and that it was conceivable that those two groups could form a “loose” partnership with al-Shabab in Somalia.

“What is most worrying at present, at least in my view,” he told journalists in Lagos in mid-August, “is a clearly stated intent by Boko Haram and by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to coordinate and synchronise their efforts,” he said. “I’m not so sure they’re able to do that just yet, but it’s clear to me they have the desire and intent to do that.”

When, just 10 days later, the group carried out a suicide attack on the U.N. compound in the capital Abuja, killing at least 23 people, it appeared that Ham’s suggestion that Boko Haram’s ambitions – or those of at least one faction within the group – were no longer confined strictly to Nigeria. It was the first known attack by the group on a foreign target.

Since then, the Nigerian government, backed by some Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill, have called for putting Boko Haram on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organisations and for the administration to substantially increase its counter-terrorism assistance – which amounted to only 1.5 million dollars over the last two years – to Abuja.

In a presentation to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) here in October, Ham also appeared to endorse such an approach, reiterating his fears about the “stated intent” of Al- Shabaab, AQIM, and Boko Haram “to link and synchronise their efforts”, which he described as a “very, very dangerous outcome for us”.

“Very clearly, Boko Haram has altered the relationship somewhat, …so we’re looking for ways in which we can help …in developing their counter-terrorist capabilities, things such as non-lethal training and non-lethal equipment, to be more precise in the application of force…”

Earlier this month, Jonathan’s national security adviser, Owoye Andrew Azazi, called explicitly for such steps in an op-ed published in the Washington Times.

“We can destroy Boko Haram in its early stages, before it goes truly international,” he wrote. “We don’t want or need American troops. But we would benefit greatly from American know-how and other forms of support as we develop our new counterterrorism strategy.”

The Obama administration, however, has until now resisted such exhortations, instead suggesting that dealing with Boko Haram required a considerably more subtle approach than the one that has been pursued by Jonathan’s government.

“The Jonathan administration has chosen to view Boko Haram as essentially a security issue: throw more police at it, throw more soldiers at it, get more international help by labelling the whole thing as a counter-terrorist effort,” said John Campbell, a Nigeria expert at the influential Council on Foreign Relations.

“Boko Haram is not an organisation; it’s a movement with multiple strains and causes,” among them, the sense among northern political leaders that they have been marginalised, he told IPS.

“My argument is that Boko Haram is fundamentally a political issue, that it comes out of uniquely Nigerian circumstances; that it has little to do with international terrorism (although it certainly uses terrorist methods); and there is little or no role for the United States.”

“It could acquire a jihadist character, and the way it could is if the United States is seen as supportive of Nigerian security approaches to Boko Haram,” said Campbell, who, as a veteran diplomat, served two tours in Nigeria.

U.S. restraint appeared to be reflected in Tuesday’s State Department statement issued by its spokesperson, Victoria Nuland, who said the U.S. “strongly condemns the terrorist attacks in the city of Kano and Bauchi state… and call(s) for those responsible to be held accountable.”

“The United States remains strongly committed to working with Nigerian officials to find a way to bring peace to the north through both security and political responses and to work with the Nigerian government and others in the international community to promote greater economic development and long-term growth throughout northern Nigeria,” she said.

“We reiterate the importance of protecting innocent civilians in any law enforcement response to such attacks,” the statement added.

Carl Levan, a Nigeria specialist who teaches African politics at American University, suggested that was a very important message.

Among Nigeria specialists, he said, there has been “overwhelming sentiment that militarising the response (to Boko Haram) will only radicalise it, as it has for the last few years, and undermine support (for the government) from the local population.

“It’s not clear to me that Gen. Ham understands this, and that’s why it’s important that the U.S. speak with one voice,” he added, noting that the working group on security cooperation of the U.S.-Nigerian Binational Commission, which is coincidentally meeting in Abuja this week, has just decided to make insecurity in northeastern Nigeria a priority issue.

“Offers of security assistance are on the table, but it’s really important for the U.S. government to make sure the diplomatic and development alternatives get the resources they need,” he said, adding that Washington should also push for talks between the government and Boko Haram for which he said there is strong popular and elite support in the north.

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at

Republish | | Print |