Internet searches for ‘Boko Haram’ have spiked this month as several Western nations voiced their willingness to join Nigeria’s efforts to subdue the Islamist movement’s terror activities.
Google Trends measured a fourfold increase in searches for information and/or news about the organisation compared to the second half of April.
Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, is Nigeria’s most wanted man. The US government’s Special Forces look set to join a manhunt for him and Abuja will also get intelligence support from Paris and London.
A car bomb in Nyanya, a suburb of Abuja, went off in the evening of May 1, killing at least 19 people. The attack came less than three weeks after one on April 14, also in Nyanya, which killed more than 70 commuters at a bus station. Like the previous attack, the latest one was perpetrated by parking a car filled with explosives in a crowded area and detonating it remotely. It appears to have targeted a police station near a bus transit point. Shekau claimed responsibility for the Abuja blast in a video in which he taunted President Goodluck Jonathan and his government, saying that the president was “too small” for Boko Haram, and challenging him with the words, “I dare you to get me, if you can.”
The president has evidently decided to take up that challenge. The Nigerian army announced on April 25 that it had killed more than 40 members of Boko Haram in a “large-scale engagement” in Borno State. The offensive has been accompanied by an extensive public relations campaign, in which journalists have been taken around army camps by officers and escorted in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno, to hear how the deployment of troops in conjunction with the Civilian Joint Task Force (Civilian JTF) has limited Boko Haram’s presence in the city.
The military operation was undertaken in Sambisa forest, where Boko Haram is thought to have a camp and where the army suspects it is holding some of the over 200 girls (numbers differ from account to account) abducted from a school on April 15. By the first week of May, Boko Haram kidnapped 11 more girls in Borno State. The latest crimes come as the plight of the more than 200 teenaged girls kidnapped in mid-April from their school in Chibok continues to make headlines across Africa and the world.
Some of Nigeria’s foreign partners have offered to help rescue the Chibok girls. The US announced that Nigeria had accepted its offer of military and civilian experts to assist in the operation. The United Kingdom (UK) and France are also sending small teams of experts, and China has offered its help. Police have offered a 50 million naira reward for information that could lead to the rescue of the girls. There have been reports that some of the girls have been given to Islamist fighters as brides, and that some have been sent across national borders to radicals in Chad and Cameroon.
These international links suggest that Boko Haram, historically mainly active in Borno and largely made up of Kanuris, is co-operating to a greater extent with foreign radicals and has support elsewhere in the region. This was also suggested in a report that Niger’s armed forces were involved in a skirmish with Boko Haram fighters near Diffa, about 5 km from the border with Nigeria. This is the first fighting officially reported between Niger’s army and Boko Haram. Cameroon’s army has stationed two battalions along the Nigerian border to look for insurgents crossing the border and to pre-empt attacks on Cameroonian soil.
Boko Haram’s terror campaign has hit its current high just as policymakers gathered in Nigeria for the World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa event. The WEF event was going to be a stage for the Nigerian government to add momentum to the narrative of Nigeria’s economic success, in the wake of the GDP rebasing in April which showed that Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy. But, with so much media attention focussed on the Chibok girls, on two recent bomb attacks in Abuja itself, and more broadly on Boko Haram’s devastating surge this year, Nigeria’s success story has not been a very prominent one.
The security situation remains very tense as reports of new terror attacks come thick and fast. Boko Haram’s insurgency is the most threatening it has ever been: it has more advanced weaponry than ever before, has linked up with jihadist groups in other countries, and clearly has an effective cell in Abuja. The social and political effects of its terror campaign are unprecedented, and have resulted in the biggest protests against Jonathan’s government since marches against higher fuel prices in early 2012.
Unlike then, however, Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) is far from secure in its position as the ruling party, after three opposition parties joined forces to form the All Progressives Congress (APC), the biggest opposition movement since the return to democracy in 1999. Boko Haram’s activities are damaging the PDP politically, while conspiracy theories linking either the government or the APC to funding Boko Haram abound, entrenching regional divisions in a country where northerners and southerners have always been suspicious of each other. This combination of circumstances presents real political risk.
However, the mobilisation of international help against Boko Haram is also unprecedented. The experts being sent to Nigeria by the Western nations, and offers of satellite intelligence by China, could make a real difference, while the political pressure on government will probably energise the Nigerian security forces. We think the defence ministry is making a concerted effort to address the corruption, lack of motivation and violence towards civilians which have limited the efficiency of the military response to Boko Haram until now.
BY: Francois Conradie (Political Analyst) and Christie Viljoen (Senior Economist) – NKC Independent Economists