Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan, who is running for re-election next month, appealed to the U.S. as early as a year ago for arms and men to fight against the Islamic insurgency in the country’s northeast, according to a weekend report in the Wall Street Journal. High American officials prefer to talk about free and fair elections; originally scheduled for last week, Nigeria Independent Electoral Commission postponed them until late March due to the terrorist emergency. Top American military spokesmen say there are absolutely no plans to aid the Nigerians, let alone send advisors and even troops, as Mr. Jonathan says are needed.
Assuming he is not making the story up to counter critics who accuse him (a southerner) of neglecting the north’s troubles, and assuming the leaders of U.S. foreign policy stayed mum about the request for reasons of their own, the questions for our side are: Should we bother? And if we should bother, what can we do? But such questions are deflected by State Department spokesmen, who insist on repeating the secretary of state’s position: when they show they respect transparent democratic processes, we can talk about what we might do to help them.
The situation in Nigeria’s wild northeast is urgent, even desperate for the tens of thousands who have been displaced by the rampaging fighters of the Boko Haram movement. The situation in Maiduguri, the capital of the northeastern state of Borno, remains extremely tense, as fighting, according to eyewitness reports, continues in the outskirts of the city. The Islamic revolutionary group also attacked Gombe, capital of another northeastern state of the same name, shot up the downtown and left leaflets warning residents they risked death if they went to the polls in March.
Boko Haram, consisting for the most part of members of the Kanuri tribal group, which — anthropologists can correct this at will — is related to the larger Hausa group dominant in northern Nigeria. The Boko Haram men are formally known as Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, which means “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad.” Boko Haram is a contraction of a slogan they took up early in their insurgency, some five years ago, “Western education is forbidden,” which seems to mean they do not like the West and its wicked ways. Reportedly led by a man named Abubakar Shekau, the movement is most notorious for its kidnappings of school children, who become child soldiers or child brides.
Boko Haram crossed into neighboring Chad and laid waste a town named Ngubua on the lake’s western shore; they also have branched into Niger to the north and can be expected to pursue their depredations in Cameroon.
On the surface, the tactic appears to represent classic stage-two guerrilla warfare maneuvers: hit and run across as broad a swathe of territory as possible to force the enemy to disperse his forces; meanwhile, stage-one, random acts of terrorism, continue, in the case of Boko Haram using kidnapped and brainwashed or drugged children as suicide bombers.
President Jonathan is running neck and neck, according to political observers, with a retired general and military ruler, Mohammadu Buhari, who is a Hausa and whose reputation as a strongman is his major campaign asset. The president faces the additional problem of desertions in his own ranks: not only powerful state political leaders of his ruling Progressive Democrats, but the grand old man of the party and the restorer of democracy, retired general and ex-president Olusewon Obasanjo, has turned against him. In a rather shabby exchange last week, the former president, whom many Nigerians revere as their Mandela for having put an end to the decades of military rule, accused his hand-picked successor as preparing to fix the election if not prepare a military coup with loyal (or bought) security men, while Jonathan in turn accused the great man, who has thrown his support to Buhari, of angling for a return to power at the side of his former military colleague (and later rival).
A rotter of a mess, no question. And one which the Islam-is-the-answer extremists see as their main chance, especially when they see the U.S. getting puritanical about clean elections. However, the Boko Haram incursion into Chad could well be a sign of desperation. They may calculate that they can force the Chadians, who joined the fray last month with forays into Nigeria to clobber a movement they recognize as a trans-regional threat, to fall back in defensive positions if their own people are hit. But the Chadians are soldiers of the savannah and the desert, specialists in long-distance raids, hardened by years of fighting, from Sudan in the east to Mali in the west, passing by Libya and fraternal conflicts in their own country. The latest Boko Haram depredations in Chad and Niger are likely to galvanize the whole neighborhood.
There is not very much we can do about the internal affairs of any of these countries. What is remarkable, however, is that while this is going on, the State Department continues to repeat its leader’s line that nothing, but nothing, even ought to be done until the Nigerians clean house. Maybe this explains President Jonathan’s somewhat exasperated tone, at least as conveyed in the Wall Street Journal; his attitude as reported is that we owe it to him to come to his aid.
Maybe we owe it to ourselves. Or not. But that is surely a better question than John Kerry’s: Are the Nigerians worthy of our aid? Are they sufficiently democratic? Is their army fully up on Marquess of Queensberry rules?
It always struck some observers as an odd affect of otherwise sensible Americans to mock Mr. Kerry as a “Francophile.” As a public figure he is the very antithesis of a French type of person — rational, coldly cynical about affairs of state, anything but airheaded. Indeed, his homologue Laurent Fabius, France’s minister of foreign affairs, is on his way to the region to assure the locals that if they stay in the fight, France will back them. Nothing about free-and-fair and human rights, just guns and political support at the UN, if it comes to where the UN would be needed to cover a multinational intervention force, which in fact is probably what M. Fabius is thinking of.