Ugly truth: Nigeria's Jonathan can afford to ignore Boko Haram - it's smart cynical election politics

When a country is the land size of Nigeria with nearly 180 million, it can afford some pain that smaller nations like Rwanda and Liberia cannot.

TURNING the tide against Boko Haram will require a “huge” international effort, a top US military commander warned on Tuesday, taking a swipe at Nigeria’s response to the emboldened extremists.

Relations between the Nigerian and US militaries have been strained with Nigeria cancelling training by US advisers of a unit that was supposed to fight the militants, who have captured towns and villages in the country’s northeast and vowed to create a hardline Islamic state.

Last week, in the face of demands that the world respond to the slaughter of civilians by Boko Haram the way it did after the killings of police and journalists at the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo by jihadist extremists, Nigeria again rejected both UN and African Union intervention. It said West Africans can deal with Boko Haram, though the militants have continued killing with impunity. 

The conflict has left more than 13,000 people dead and one million homeless.

What Jonathan knows and we don’t

General David Rodriguez, head of US Africa Command, said the Islamists’ gains on the battlefield are cause for concern and “the number of people displaced is just staggering.”

“I think it’s going to take a huge international and multinational effort there to change a trajectory that continues to go in the wrong direction,” Rodriguez said at an event organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

Rodriguez said the Nigerian military’s response “was not working very effectively and actually in some places made it worse.”

He added: “I hope that they let us help more and more.”

In a visit Sunday to Lagos, US Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington was “prepared to do more” to help Nigeria counter Boko Haram.

Nigeria has the largest army in west Africa but has come under criticism at home and abroad for failing to stop the advance of Boko Haram.

So the spectacle seen since April last year, when Boko Haram kidnapped nearly 300 schoolgirls from Chibok in northeast Nigeria, sparking off a global #BringBackOurGirls campaign, while at home Abuja was blocking demanding the return of the girls. But does Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan know something the rest of us don’t? It seems, yes.

Last week as Nigeria told the world to keep off  the Boko Haram fight, in London there was a “Nigerian Lives Matter” rally, which criticised the international community for inaction.

This is not a disconnect, and could be down to three cold realities; electoral politics, the land size of Nigeria, and its population.

Good electoral politics

There is a popular view that unrest in the northeast improves the chances of Jonathan’s re-election. It is not unjustified.

As an insightful Brookings Institution paper by Jideofor Adibe noted: “The emergence of a viable opposition coincides with a period of great tension between north and south, arising from the decision of President Goodluck Jonathan to contest the 2011 elections at the head of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), a decision that has made many northerners feel cheated of their turn in producing the president and that induced some violence”. 

The result of that election, as a stunning map of the outcome by Brookings shows, is that Jonathan didn’t win a plurality of the vote in any of the northern states, effectively cutting the country into two. Now with former general and president Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim and northerner, in the race at the head of a surging opposition All Progressive Congress (APC) ticket, and the grievance over insecurity, Jonathan is all definitely set to do even worse in the north. A recent Buhari rally in Kano in the north that can only be described as mammoth, is said to have spooked the Jonathan camp further.

The people in the northeast who are now not going to vote because of the insurgency, are therefore effectively votes for Jonathan.

Big enough to afford it

However, Nigeria also today also displays a common problem in Africa. When a country is large - as DR Congo for example is - and insurgencies happen far away from the capital and commercial nerve centres (in Nigeria’s case Abuja and Lagos respectively), it can afford to ignore it. At 923,768 square kilometres (356,669 square miles), Nigeria’s is the 14th largest African country.

The military doctrine of such countries, especially if most of their economy is at the coast and the insurgency is in the remote hinterland like Nigeria’s Borno state is, is very different than that of smaller nations like Rwanda or Uganda. Rwanda’s latter day strategy is not to fight any wars on its tiny land, so it does everything to contain its foes like the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) rebels outside its borders in eastern DR Congo.

In Uganda, the government threw everything into pushing the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels first from the north of the country into south Sudan, and on to DR Congo and the Central African Republic (CAR).

Thirdly, though, Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation, with nearly 180 million. I can shrug off  Boko Haram killing 13,000 and displacing one million, in ways that small Sierra Leone with 6 million people and Liberia with 4 million couldn’t during their civil wars.

Thus the answer to what seems like the nonchalance of Abuja toward Boko Haram’s mayhem is an uncomfortable one - it can afford to, and its clever though deadly cynical electoral politics for Jonathan. 

-Additional reporting by AFP

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