15 Mar 2015

Boko Haram: A threat to regional security

Written by  Francis Tazoacha

No. 326: Boko Haram: A threat to regional security / Francis Tazoacha / The Sunday Independent
15 March 2015

When the insurgent Sunni religious group Boko Haram was founded 12 years ago in Nigeria, the "problem" was waved away by the Nigerian government, seemingly unaware of the potential violence and death this group could visit on the country.

Today, Boko Haram is among the most vicious and ruthless insurgent groups in the world, having killed more than 13 000 Nigerians, most of them in the north-east.

Boko Haram was founded by Mohammed Marwa with the intention of opposing Western education in particular and Western hegemony in general. To read any book other than the Qur'an was considered a sin. This doctrine was heralded in Muslim-dominated northern Nigeria, where sharia, Islamic law, was the principal legal system.

However, numerous riots, orchestrated by non-Muslim minorities, over the implementation of sharia in the northern Muslim states took place. Smouldering public support for sharia led to the abandonment of the secular law and the rise and consolidation of Boko Haram as an insurgent group.

The Nigerian security forces arrested, interrogated, and later executed Boko Haram leader Mohammed Yusuf in July 2009. After Yusuf's death, Abubakar Shekau became the new leader. He became violent, ruthless, and uncompromising, turning to terrorist tactics.

In 2009, Boko Haram began attacking churches and mosques, detonating bombs indiscriminately across Nigeria, especially in the north-east, and arbitrarily executing members of the security forces and civilians. Despite these atrocities, the Nigerian government proved unable to extinguish the growing fire.

To strengthen its arsenal, Boko Haram resorted to kidnapping for ransom, bank robbery, piracy, and drug smuggling. It is also believed that some of its finances come from private individuals in Nigeria who sympathise with the group or are using it to further their political ambitions.

With these funds, Boko Haram insurgents have been able to buy heavy weapons and artillery, and launch their attacks wherever and whenever they wish.

Boko Haram's military supremacy over the Nigerian security and the military has enabled it to expand its areas of operation.

The government of Goodluck Jonathan, through its failure to act, has implicitly condoned Boko Haram's violence, gruesome killings, destruction, and territorial expansion.

Until recently, the international community had turned a blind eye to these atrocities, and Nigerians themselves had not sought international intervention.

Not until April, when Boko Haram kidnapped 276 schoolgirls from Chibok in Borno State, was the international community awakened to the enormity of the problem.

Boko Haram has since carried out many more kidnappings. The Chibok abduction was so large the world could no longer ignore this phenomenon.

A security meeting was held in France in October that brought together the leaders of Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria, who declared war on Boko Haram.

Following this meeting, Cameroon's President Paul Biya vowed to pursue Boko Haram "until it is wiped out".

Boko Haram insurgents had launched attacks on north-eastern Nigeria from bases in Cameroon, but in recent months they have increased their strikes inside Cameroon. They have extended their activities to Cameroon, Chad, and Niger, and carried out cross-border kidnappings and attacks on security and military posts.

Recognising the magnitude of the insecurity threat that the group could pose to the region, Cameroon's president called for international co-operation in the fight against Boko Haram, declaring the insurgency "a global threat" that demanded "a global response".

Chad was the first to respond, sending thousands of troops to join Cameroonian soldiers. Its President Idriss Deby said Boko Haram attacks on Cameroon could destroy Chad's economy, as Cameroon was the economic gateway to Chad.

Niger has also joined the 7 500-strong AU-backed force that was approved last month, bringing together the five countries now under threat from Boko Haram.

Benin has also pledged to join in the fight, since its security is now at stake from the insurgency. Ghana's President John Dramani Mahama, recognising the seriousness of the threat Boko Haram poses, has suggested the formation of a new military force, possibly also under the auspices of the AU, to crush the group. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has supported the AU's move to send a military force to fight Boko Haram.

Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria, recognising the insecurity that Boko Haram poses to the region, met in Yaoundé and agreed to form an AU expanded force of 8 700 military personnel, police, and civilians. The formation of this multinational force seems to augur a safer environment in a region devastated by an insurgency that has led more than one million people to leave their homes since 2009.

These multinational efforts make plain the magnitude of the insecurity that Boko Haram poses not only to Nigeria, but also to its neighbours.

The rise of Boko Haram has revealed the need for each of Africa's regions to assemble a standby force to protect its citizens from security threats.

If the Lake Chad region, which comprises Cameroon, Niger, Nigeria Chad, the Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, had assembled such a force, it might have prevented Boko Haram's rampage.

This should be a lesson for all of Africa.

Francis Tazoacha is a senior project officer at the Centre for Conflict Resolution (CCR) in Cape Town

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