Africa’s biggest nation stumbles: Nigeria shows the strain over Boko Haram

West African neighbours join the fight as militants increase attacks and casualties rise.

Nigeria has produced African greatest novelists, perhaps because it is a country where reality is frequently stranger than fiction. In the latest round, the Nigerian government has banned demonstrations demanding the return of over 200 schoolgirls who were abducted by Boko Haram militants in the northeast of the country over a month ago, and have become a global campaign issue.

The official reason given by the Nigeria government for banning the rallies is that the marches risk being infiltrated by “dangerous elements”. 

Abuja police chief Joseph Mbu said that the force had information that such agents, referring to sympathisers of the Boko Haram extremist group, could use the marching groups as a cover to “detonate explosive (s) aimed at embarrassing the government”.

The claim follows First Lady Patience Jonathan’s early reaction where she accused protesting mothers of the abducted girls of being Boko Haram members, who were looking to bring down her husband’s regime down by embarrassing it.  Last week, pro-government thugs attacked demonstrators.

The emerging official line that the protests are painting the Nigerian government in bad light suggests Abuja is growing uncomfortable over the international spotlight cast over the April 14 abductions. 

The government initially seemed that glad that the global focus on Boko Haram as terror menace had been internationalised. Wide-ranging counter-terrorism help against the militants seemed assured after the United Nations Security Council blacklisted the group.

Hard criticism
But as the weeks have ticked by the government has had to contend with hard criticism that it was doing little to rescue the girls, even as military chiefs who have been under great pressure said that they knew where the schoolgirls were being held.   

Despite concerted international military help that Abuja reluctantly accepted, terror attacks have continued, fuelling public perception that Boko Haram has overwhelmed the government. Nigeria could face major political repercussions if this feeling takes root. 

On Sunday a bomb attack at a football match in the northeastern Nigeria town of Mubi killed at least 40 people. The region is Boko Haram’s stronghold, even as the group has fanned out south in a show of its growing ability to strike across states.

Mubi was in 2012 the setting of another Boko Haram attack on a student housing complex, which left at least 40 dead. 

On the same day suspected Boko Haram members stormed a church service in Borno state and killed nine worshippers. This came days after the sect killed a high-level traditional Muslim leader in the area, the Emir of Gwoza, Alhaji Idrissa Timta, in a highway ambush.

Proud nation
Boko Haram, which is fighting to establish an Islamist state in northern Nigeria, says it is opposed to western education and has loosely shaped itself in the mould of the Taliban of Afghanistan.

Following five years of Boko Haram attacks that Abuja presented as localised to the northeast and as low-level, the Chibok abductions have grabbed the initiative from Nigeria, leaving many in President Goodluck Jonathan’s regime uncomfortable with the direction the narrative has now taken.

This is essentially that Nigeria, the continent’s biggest economy and most populous nation, a proud African military nation since its vanguard role in the ECOWAS-led military intervention in Liberia in 1990, has been forced to accept outside help, including that of the United States.

Indeed in a telling indictment, former President Olusegun Obasanjo while on a visit to Kenya said Jonathan’s government had been “overwhelmed” by the insurgency. The feisty Nigerian leader was said to be in talks with Boko Haram leaders to release the girls.

Obasanjo is a political mentor to Jonathan and backed the incumbent’s 2011 candidacy, and his remarks would have gone down hard at Aso Rock, the seat of the presidency, even if the two have since reportedly fallen out.

Question of authority
Obasanjo is not new to negotiations with Boko Haram. Following a high-profile Boko Haram attack on the UN headquarters in Abuja in September 2011, he flew to the group’s Maiduguri base to meet with relatives of killed Boko Haram leader Mohammed Yusuf.

Those talks did not help stem the attacks, and Obasanjo’s capacity as a private citizen has further raised the question of his authority to negotiate on behalf of the government.

Obasanjo’s strategy has been said to be a prisoner swap deal, but Jonathan, alive to the political repercussions, has in public ruled out such an event. 

In a silver lining for the Nigerian administration, the country’s neighbours have now been roused from their stupor regarding the cross-border operations of the militants.

Cameroon has now deployed troops to its far north, where Boko Haram militants have in recent years staged cross-border attacks. The movement of troops follows a recent high-level meeting of President Paul Biya with Chad counterpart Idriss Deby in the Cameroonian capital Yaoundé.

The two leaders vowed to take Boko Haram head on. Their meeting came just two weeks after France President Francois Hollande called a summit on Boko Haram that further fuelled the feeling that Jonathan was running out of options.

Public confidence
The Nigerian president had been scheduled to travel to Chibok but opted to go straight to Paris, underscoring the fragile security situation on the north-east, and further damping down public confidence about their security.

The Paris meeting was said by analysts to be a “game changer” as a raft of West and Central African leaders pledged to help put down the regional threat posed by Boko Haram.

In a further sign of the growing influence of Paris, and the challenges facing Jonathan, Nigerian commentators noted that the Nigerian leader had for long been pushing Hollande to talk to Nigeria’s Francophone neighbours Cameroon, Chad and Niger over Boko Haram.

For Jonathan however, a breakthrough in the Chibok case cannot come quickly enough, as he goes into a tough campaign ahead of elections next year.

Twitter: @LMAfrican


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