The Nigerian jihadist group Boko Haram, which translates to “western education is forbidden,” has perpetrated what might be referenced as the worst attack in its history, killing hundreds of civilians in a remote northeastern corner of Nigeria. The widely reported estimate for the death toll of Boko Haram’s onslaught in Baga and sixteen other communities around the Nigerian side of Lake Chad is around 2,000. They have terrorized northern Nigeria since 2009, attacking police, schools, churches, and bombing government buildings. The group has also kidnapped students, including more than 200 schoolgirls who were abducted in April and remain missing. These attacks took place in a part of the country the Nigerian army has proved unwilling to hold and that the government in Abuja has been remarkably unwilling to contest. Years of institutional rot and regional tension have enabled one of the most vicious jihadist insurgencies on earth.
The recent Boko Haram rampage is taking place against the backdrop of Nigeria’s presidential elections, scheduled for February. The current president, Goodluck Jonathan, is from the country’s oil-rich southern half and is emphasizing his economic record while making every attempt at ignoring the firestorm in the northeast. Boko Haram, which comes from the Muslim and historically marginalized and underdeveloped north, some feel is trying to derail the electoral process and undermine confidence in Nigeria’s tenuous multi-ethnic, secular, and democratic order. As Brandon Kendhammer, a Nigeria scholar and assistant professor of political science at Ohio University explains, “Boko Haram’s gains may have had more to do with the weakness of the Nigerian state than with any long-term strategy.”
Nigeria’s army was once one of the most powerful in Africa, and it earned international respect for helping to pacify Sierra Leone and Liberia during the countries’ conflicts in the late 1990’s. However Nigeria’s politics and major institutions are highly regional and ethnic. The military has seen its leadership, preparedness, and hardware all decline in quality over the past decade, and has been accused of repeated human-rights violations in the marginalized northeastern parts of the country that Boko Haram currently controls.
The army has suffered defeats at Boko Haram’s hands in the northeast and has even deserted several bases. Boko Haram’s brutality, along with the military’s poor abilities has left the Nigerian army unable to operate in the parts of the country the group controls. At this point, the army also seems incapable of reforming itself. Nigeria cut off United States military training assistance in December, partly out of Abuja’s frustration that U.S. concerns over the military’s human-rights record had blocked any additional aid from Washington.
As this reign of terror continues in Nigeria, many are questioning the international response or lack thereof in light of the recent attacks in Paris at satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. An estimated 3.7 million people took to the streets to show solidarity with the victims. Forty world leaders joined the start of the Paris march, linking arms in an act of unity. The world needs to demonstrate more determination to the group’s advance in Nigeria. This monumental tragedy must be vigorously acknowledged and stopped before more innocent bystanders are killed.