Nigerian refugees in Gagamari camp, Diffa region, Niger
It has been nearly a year since the “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign brought Nigeria’s fierce struggle with Boko Haram to international attention, yet the situation in much of the country is far from improved. Though hard to believe, the 200+ schoolgirls abducted in Nigeria last year are merely the victims of a single incident in a drawn-out, bitter conflict which the country’s leadership appears incapable of handling. For years, Boko Haram has been committing incredibly violent acts of terrorism across Nigeria, even going as far as to attack the UN building in Abuja — Nigeria’s capital — in 2011 and kill nearly 100 people in the city via bombings in the summer of 2014.
When faced with such a dire threat, the onus to combat Boko Haram and protect the thousands that it constantly victimizes has rightfully fallen on the country’s president, Goodluck Jonathan. The president, however, has been less than successful in dealing with the attacks, with some even going as far as to accuse him of complacency. These criticisms are not without their merits, for when one examines the sheer breadth and audacity of Boko Haram’s actions in contrast to the seemingly token resistance by the government, it becomes difficult to believe that state security is truly the administration’s top priority.
An example of the government’s ineffectual attempts to stem the violence can be seen in 2013, when Jonathan declared states of emergency for three embattled Nigerian states. He empowered the military and charged them with putting an end to Boko Haram’s campaign of violence. Yet over the course of almost a year, barely anything had changed. In the time between May 2013 and January 2014, Boko Haram was suspected to have killed over 1200 people in Nigeria, according to the UN. In response to this evident failure, Jonathan fired and replaced his military chiefs — an action that has sadly done little to end the violence. It was under the watch of this new military leadership, after all, that Boko Haram was able to perpetrate its most infamous abductions and wrestle control of entire cities away from the government, killing hundreds in the process.
It was under these dire circumstances that Nigeria’s upcoming general election — a heated battle between Jonathan and retired Major General Muhammadu Buhari — was delayed from its original date of February 14 until March 28. This comes on the heels of much contention between Nigeria’s electoral commission, the UN, and Nigeria’s security adviser, of which only the latter called for a delay. While suspicions of vote manipulation and other fraud abound, the reason for the delay, as provided by the government, is to provide additional security — an effort which, even if sincere, may be too-little-too-late.
Jonathan and his military leaders have attempted, at least in some capacity, to bring the fight to Boko Haram for years without much success, and there is very little indication that the situation will drastically improve in the coming weeks. In the days preceding the announcement of the election’s delay in January, for example, Boko Haram had taken terrifying actions on a level hardly seen before, even by the group itself.
The group attacked the cities of Baga and Doron Baga in northeast Nigeria, destroying thousands of buildings in both cities, kidnapping hundreds of young women, and killing an estimated 2,000 people (a figure the government disputes, stating that the true death toll is closer to 150). Although the government claims to have retaken Baga on February 21st, the damage and trauma inflicted by Boko Haram is certainly not something that the government will have put to rest by March 28th.
Moreover, the leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, has pledged to stop the elections on the 28th from being held — a threat made all the more palpable by the relentless wave of suicide attacks that have killed dozens in the Northeast, the most recent of which was carried out by a girl as young as seven years old. Ultimately, the issue of Boko Haram is not one that can be solved overnight, but proper leadership is a quality that would assuredly go a long way towards improving the situation. For now, the Nigerian soldiers fighting Boko Haram are underequipped, suffer low morale, and are subject to the demands of largely ineffective military chiefs, whom the administration shuffles through to shift blame.
If the Nigerian government is to be successful in quelling Boko Haram in the future, its administration, be it under Jonathan or Buhari, will need to make the quality of Nigeria’s military leaders and capabilities a top priority both for the sake of the citizens under siege in the north and the security of the state as a whole.
Kwame Newton is a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences at Cornell University, studying Government.
Image Attribution: “Nutrition care for Nigerian refugees in Gagamari camp, Diffa region, Niger” by European Commission DG ECHO, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0