`Boko Haram no longer a purely Nigerian problem`

In an interview, Dr J Peter Pham discusses Nigeria`s policies to tackle Boko Haram.

"Western education is a sin". This is the loose translation of Boko Haram, a radical Islamist sect which has wreaked havoc in Nigeria through a wave of bombings.

In recent attacks apparently carried out by Boko Haram, over 80 people have been killed. In fact, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan of late said that the security situation in Nigeria was now more complex than during the civil war four decades ago.

He also admitted for the first time that Boko Haram sympathisers are in his government and security agencies, hence making the scenario even more complex.

In an exclusive interview with Kamna Arora of Zeenews.com, Dr J Peter Pham, an expert on Nigeria, discusses Boko Haram and Africa`s most populous country’s policies to tackle the Islamist militant group.

Dr J Peter Pham is director of the Michael S Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council.

Kamna: Why has Nigeria failed so far in defeating Boko Haram?

Dr Pham: Nigeria’s failure to end the threat of Boko Haram can be attributed to several different causes which, in combination, severely hobbled the government’s ability to confront the challenge it faced.

First, there were the clumsy attempts of some Nigerian officials to trivialize the militant group as an insignificant localised problem and to engage in wishful thinking in the futile hope that it would go away by itself. It should not be forgotten, for example, that the late Nigerian president Umaru Musa Yar’Adua left for a state visit to Brazil right in the middle of Boko Haram’s bloody 2009 uprising, despite the fact that the revolt was engulfing four states and eventually left more than 700 people dead and numerous public buildings, including government offices, police stations, schools, and churches destroyed.

Second, while nothing justifies the type of violence which Boko Haram has engaged in, especially the targeting of men, women, and children while they worship peacefully (as was the case of the Christians killed in the Christmas bombings), it is nonetheless true that the worsening of socioeconomic conditions of northern Nigeria – including economic stagnation, lack of education, corruption, and political marginalisation – have served to swell the ranks of the ignorant, destitute, and disillusioned who are easy recruits for movements promising a radical transformation of Nigerian society. In short, there is no purely military solution.

Third, it is clear that Boko Haram has established links with foreign extremist groups, including al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. These external groups have influenced Boko Haram with both tactical knowledge and ideological influence. Hence this is no longer a purely Nigerian problem. It is, at the very least, a regional problem, one that requires a response not only from the Nigerian government, but also from Nigeria’s international partners.

Kamna: Nigeria`s President has said for the first time he thinks sympathisers of the Boko Haram group are in his government and security agencies. How difficult does that make for the African nation to be victorious in `Operation Flush`?

Dr Pham: It is clear that Boko Haram could not do what it does without at least the tacit support of elements in government and security who, even if they do not necessarily share its radical ideology, hope to use its disruptive capability to their political advantage. A federal senator from the ruling People’s Democratic Party has even been arrested on charges of providing material support to the terrorists. The government needs to get to the bottom of all this.

Kamna: Do you think the Nigerian President`s policy of "carrot and stick" is working? If not, what else can be done?

Dr Pham: On the morrow of President Jonathan’s election last year, I noted in a public commentary: “Having just won an impressive mandate from the voters in what international observers have all hailed as significant step forward for Nigeria’s democracy, President Jonathan will now need to ensure that the country’s vast natural and political resources which the West African nation has at its disposal will be used to fuel its growth and development to the benefit of all Nigerians, rather than, as has sadly been the case for most of the last half century, consumed in downward spiral of corruption, internal conflict, and violence.” I see no reason to change that assessment and still await that type of decisive action.

Kamna: How do you see Boko Haram`s recent upsurge in activity?

Dr Pham: Far from being destroyed following the forceful repression of its 2009 uprising, Boko Haram has undergone a dramatic transformation thanks to growing links with other terrorist groups including al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Al-Shabaab in Somalia. As its attacks last year on Nigerian Police headquarters and the United Nations offices in Abuja demonstrated, far from being a spent force, Boko Haram has not only adopted, but indeed mastered one of the deadliest instruments in the jihadist arsenal, the vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED). These attacks in the Nigerian capital also demonstrated that the militant group was now capable of carrying out operations far from its usual areas of operation, a factor that was also highlighted by the attacks last month.

Kamna: How can the international community help Nigeria in tackling the Islamist group?

Dr Pham: The responsibility is that of the Nigerian government. However, the international community should be prepared to assist it as necessary, while refraining from exacerbating the situation by undue pressure or alarmism. Nigeria is too important for Africa and the world to be allowed to be brought down by a terrorist group.