The January 5 editorial in the Wall Street Journal titled “#BokoHaramIsWinning” should serve as a wake-up call to the Obama administration. News reports of the ruthless, radical Islamist terrorist group’s takeover of an army base followed by the multi-national anti-Boko Haram force abandoning another base just yesterday is cause for great concern to Nigeria and its neighbors.
The focus of recent reporting has been on the deteriorating relationship between the Obama Administration and Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan. The reporting carries the usual themes of mutual distrust due to Nigerian perceptions of U.S. arrogance and lack of engagement on strategic issues on everything from oil and trade policy to national security issues, such as Boko Haram and China’s activities in the region, to U.S. charges of Nigerian government corruption. While those are valid causes for caution, the only entity that benefits from the lack of engagement cooperation is Boko Haram. With at least 5,000 innocents slaughtered since 2009 and no signs of that onslaught letting up, Boko Haram has brought a level of terror and barbarism to West Africa that is akin to Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS).
In the Hausa language, Boko Haram means “Western education is forbidden.” The name itself is a clue to its goals and ferocity. But why is Boko Haram focused on Nigeria? Certainly it has to do with the large Muslim population in the country. But it has just as much to do with the policies and actions of the Nigerian government.
President Jonathan is perhaps one of the most Western-oriented leaders on the African continent, intent on westernizing Nigeria through aggressive reforms in education, economic development (job creation and a focus on building sectors outside of the oil industry, such as tech), and women’s rights. There has also been a focus on education, especially in the predominantly Muslim north of the country where more than 1,200 schools and nine universities have opened. And the government has attempted to take on the overhang of corruption with government accountability and transparency policies.
It’s no coincidence that this anti-Western terrorist group has risen in direct parallel to the Nigerian government’s efforts. And it’s also not a surprise — given his seeming lack of interest in foreign policy engagement in general and Africa specifically, especially in countering rising Islamic threats on the continent from Libya to Kenya – that this U.S. president and his State Department have dropped the ball.
But the United States should have an interest in Nigeria if only to help Africa’s largest country — population 170 million — fight the common enemy that is Boko Haram. But there is another geopolitical imperative at stake. China continues to build its foothold in Africa and the Chinese are targeting Nigeria for its oil and other natural resources and strategic western Africa location.
By all accounts, Nigeria’s government is committed to taking on Boko Haram on its own terms, but has been seeking aid for heavy military equipment and weaponry to take the terrorists on. The Obama administration should be providing the kind of support the Nigerians are requesting, if not because of the terrorist threat, then the strategic value of having a strong ally in the region that looks to the West.
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