President of Nigeria Goodluck Jonathan
Just days after the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, Boko Haram opened fire in the village of Baga in northern Nigeria, killing as many as 2,000 people. It was the deadliest attack by the Islamic militant group in its history. Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, sent his condolences to Paris, joining in with the global voice of solidarity with the satirical magazine. In response to the massacre of his own people, however, President Jonathan was noticeably silent.
This lack of response is not without precedent. On 3 November 2010, a suicide bomber killed at least 15 people and injured about 50 more who were marching to mark the Day of Ashura, a holy day for both Shi’a and Sunni Muslims. Seven days later, another suicide bomber killed at least 46 people and wounded 79 in an attack at the Government Science Secondary School in Yobe State. The day after the school bombing, Goodluck Jonathan launched his re-election campaign, without a single mention of the incidents. Furthermore, it took the president 40 days to address the Nigerian people about the famous abduction of schoolgirls in Chibok in April 2014 — that’s more than two weeks after Michelle Obama tweeted a picture of herself with the ubiquitous #BringBackOurGirls.
It seems that the only time President Jonathan will publicly address a Boko Haram attack is when he is under international pressure to do so. The acknowledgment of the Chibok abductions came only after a tremendous international outcry. The lack of international coverage of the recent Baga attack — left in the shadow of the Hebdo affair — might be enough to explain the president’s silence.
Another reason might be the upcoming election. On 14 February the country will choose its next president — and Boko Haram’s growing influence and ferocity could be the thorn in Jonathan’s side that loses him the vote. The Nigerian military and its president are desperate to say they are beating Boko Haram. The group’s elusive leader, Abubakar Shekau, has been reported to have been killed several times by the Nigerian military after long periods of absence from the public eye, only to show up shortly afterwards in videos released by the group mocking such allegations. Last February, Kashim Shettima, the governor of Borno state in northeast Nigeria and a member of an opposition party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), said: “Boko Haram are better armed and are better motivated than our own troops. Given the present state of affairs, it is absolutely impossible for us to defeat Boko Haram.”
Jonathan, who generally draws the majority of his support from Nigeria’s Christian south, has already caused controversy within his own party over the elections. Jonathan’s party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), has a longstanding tradition of alternating its presidential candidates between a Muslim northerner and a Christian southerner to reconcile the powerful geographic and religious divisions within Nigeria’s population. Jonathan’s repeated candidacy has thus led to the defection of dozens of PDP MP’s from Nigeria’s House of Representatives to the opposition APC party.
The rift between Nigeria’s Christian south and its Muslim north also reared its ugly head in 2011, when Goodluck Jonathan was first elected president. Jonathan’s victory over his Muslim opponent triggered a series of attacks on Christians in the north. More than 700 churches and thousands of Christian businesses and homes were burned, and hundreds of Christians were targeted and killed. The 2015 elections, and particularly the potential re-election of President Jonathan, thus hold serious potential to incite sectarian violence and deepen divisions between the Muslim north and Christian south, which would play right into the hands of Boko Haram.
Nigeria’s inability to combat and contain Boko Haram has led the militant group to venture into surrounding countries in the region. Cameroon’s military has been dealing recently with Boko Haram attacks, while Chad and Niger are struggling to manage the flood of refugees fleeing the fighting. Chad’s prime minister, Idriss Déby, has appealed for international aid in response to the 2,000 Nigerians and 500 Chadians who crossed the border into his country in the space of a few days shortly before the Baga attack. Jonathan’s unwillingness to address the threat of Boko Haram publicly has pushed the responsibility of dealing with the group onto other West African leaders, who are now taking matters into their own hands. Chad, for example, has authorised troops to be deployed to Cameroon and Nigeria, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is currently in the midst of forming a multinational taskforce.
The responsibility in this fight clearly lies with the Nigerian military, with its government, and with its president. Cameroonian military efforts against Boko Haram have seen some success, but most countries in the region are struggling to deal with the influx of refugees fleeing Nigeria. As impotent as the Nigerian military may be, the country’s leaders need to take charge of the situation. If a regional taskforce is to be instituted to fight the insurgency, then Nigeria will have to lead it.
Whether it is Goodluck Jonathan or someone else who wins the vote on 14 February, Nigeria’s next president will need to take vocal, public, and transparent action to deal with Boko Haram. Even with the assistance of surrounding West African nations, Nigeria will need strong and honest leadership to have any chance of combating the rising terrorist threat.