Boko Haram: completing the circle of liberal interventionism?

Clarion calls on social media for action in Africa have once again become an excuse to flex military muscle, as the rhetoric of 'humanitarian' interventions is increasingly outfitted with the tactics of the war on terror.

Richard Reeve
29 May 2014

The abduction of over 200 school girls from Chibok has radically changed not only the popular profile of the Boko Haram insurgency but also the narrative of the war in northeast Nigeria. This was probably not intended by the insurgents or the ham-fisted Nigerian government, neither of which seemed to recognise this apparent gear-shift in the insurgency. After this fumble, it was civil society, through the #BringBackOurGirls social media campaign that picked up and ran with the call for action. Now that the US and its allies have channelled this urge to “do something now” into security assistance, caution is due in monitoring how and why the energy from this new burst of liberal interventionism will be channelled.

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Why have western governments responded to this particular call to action? Michael Tubi/Demotix. All rights reserved.  

Responding to Chibok

Boko Haram has a long and undiscriminating record of terrorist violence. My analysis of data compiled by Nigeria Watch suggests that about 9,000 Nigerians (including combatants) have died in related violence since 2009, most of them since the federal government declared a localised state of emergency a year ago. That rate has been rising fast; 1,043 were recorded killed in March 2014 alone. Nevertheless, the 14 April Chibok mass abduction and Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau’s subsequent threat to forcibly marry pre-teen girls to his supporters or sell them into slavery were extraordinary, crossing multiple red lines around protection of civilians, girls’ right to education and sexual violence.

The #BringBackOurGirls campaign has tapped into a social movement last and best exploited through the Stop Kony 2012 viral video campaign. That campaign influenced the African Union to establish its Regional Cooperation Initiative for the Elimination of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in April 2012 and was a major driver of post-facto public support for the Obama administration’s October 2011 commitment of US special forces to Uganda and central Africa to hunt LRA leader Joseph Kony. Those troops remain in four countries and have recently been reinforced. Kony has not been caught but the LRA menace to children, women and other civilians has been contained and reduced.

The state-level response to Chibok has been belated but even stronger. Since 7 May, the US, UK, France, China and Israel have all sent teams to Nigeria to help search for and rescue the abducted girls, and France has hosted a summit of Nigeria, its four neighbours and the US, UK and EU. In fact, all these states already played a role in training, equipping or supporting Nigerian forces against Boko Haram. However, they were reluctant about going public with a counter-insurgency campaign previously linked to the increasingly unpopular and divisive ‘war on terror’, the toxic human rights reputation of the Nigerian security forces, and an entirely reasonable confusion over the political nature and linkages of the ostensibly Islamist rebellion.

Response and replication

Whether this foreign assistance is useful in the search for the missing girls is both highly questionable and a moot point. The US certainly has formidable aerial, satellite and signals reconnaissance technology to employ but it is struggling to coordinate with Nigeria, and unwilling to share raw data with the Nigerian security agencies. Other countries’ contributions probably only replicate Nigerian and US capabilities, and risk over-complicating the search and.

The French summit on 17 May was a classic case of replicating initiatives in order to bolster perceptions of French concern, consultation and action. Nigeria, which desperately wants to revel in its new status as Africa’s economic superpower, was humiliated that Paris – Abuja’s great rival for influence in West Africa – assumed its regional leadership role. The summit outcome commitments to bolster security cooperation in the Lake Chad basin replicated those that Nigeria and its neighbours had already made. Those sanctioning Boko Haram replicated UN-led measures.

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French President Francois Hollande (L) poses with Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan (R), during an African security summit to discuss the Boko Haram threat to regional stability. Zaer Belkalaï/Demotix. All rights reserved. 

The Elysée Summit was more useful in redirecting attention to the gendered aspects of Boko Haram’s campaign of violence, issues of particular importance to the EU and the UK, whose Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict convenes on 10 June. Both sides of the conflict have made tactical use of abducting and (separately) raping women and children linked to the other side as a means of exerting pressure or retaliation. Nigerian security forces and their civilian allies increasingly harass local women suspected of working for the militants. Boko Haram is accused of abducting girls and women to marry to its young, poor male combatants. Shekau has put his view on video record that girls above puberty should not be educated. This may be the most convincing explanation for the Chibok kidnapping: women as an economic and sexual resource.

Intervention narratives

The goal of securing the safe release of the abducted girls – and the security of their peers – must be paramount at this time. But, if the foreign assistance being pledged and provided makes little impact on this task, we must ask whether there are other goals motivating western governments to cooperate with Nigerian forces. Clearly, the political urge to assuage activists by responding with action is one of these, although we should not doubt that the Obama or Cameron families share the revulsion of other families around the world united behind #BringBackOurGirls.

The social media shaming of the Nigerian and foreign governments’ inactivity and inability to resolve the crisis has propelled foreign military forces across the rubicon. US, and perhaps British, French, Canadian, Israeli and other states’, special forces and reconnaissance aircraft and drones may stay on in Nigeria well beyond the current abduction crisis; this should not be surprising.

French forces are currently consolidating their redeployment from coastal Africa to a string of remote bases in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad. Their main base in N’djamena is just 40 km from Boko Haram’s stronghold in northeast Nigeria. US special and private military forces operate covertly in most countries of the Sahel-Sahara belt. Until this month, Nigeria appeared to be the exception.

The quiet reinforcement of these several thousand French and US troops across the western Sahel since 2012 – linking up to similar strings of mostly US bases in the eastern Sahel and Horn –is justified through the on-going international campaign against al-Qaida. US African Command openly uses the Operation Enduring Freedom tag for its operations in the Horn and Trans-Sahara. In Mali, Niger and Mauritania, French forces have joined battle against the al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an Algerian-origin group with regional aspirations. Yet Boko Haram is rather different. While it professes a common Salafism, it is not an al-Qaida affiliate and appears uninterested in controlling territory or attacking state assets outside of Nigeria.

This matters in the Nigerian context for two reasons. The first is in the way that the humanitarian impulse of #BringBackOurGirls – which diplomats can recognise as Protection of Civilians, Responsibility to Protect, or Ending Sexual Violence – shades into the realities of the war on terror. I would count four or five distinct narratives used to justify foreign military interventions in the last 15-20 years:

  1. Liberal interventionism – following the ostensibly humanitarian urge to protect civilians and uphold human rights, notably in Kosovo and Sierra Leone.
  2. The War on Drugs – an old idea reinvigorated with Plan Colombia in 1999.
  3. The War on Terror – the idea that homeland security begins abroad, notably in Afghanistan, but lately in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Mali and elsewhere.
  4. Proliferation of WMDs – actively in Iraq, and as a threat to Iran, Syria and others.
  5. Protection of civilians – controversial used to pursue regime change in Libya, less so in pursuit of Kony thereafter.

Clearly, there are overlaps; the Bush administration’s Axis of Evil concept linked state sponsors of terrorism and WMD. ‘Narco-terrorism’ links the wars on drugs and terrorism. Whatever their muddy political and religious ideologies, Kony and Shekau do lead terrorist movements. With the failed war on terror increasingly unpopular among a cynical and war-weary populace, the post-2011 shift back to humanitarian criteria completes the circle back to liberal interventionism.

While applauding the global public’s shift from retribution to humanitarianism, we should be wary of politicians’ and generals’ intent in getting involved in northern Nigeria. The signs are that future ‘humanitarian’ interventions will be fought with the tactics of the war on terror, minus its rhetoric. Perhaps we should call these ‘Protection from Terror’ operations?

Self-fulfilling prophecy

If this shift in narrative represents the new Anglo-American take on intervention, the second reason for concern about the international fallout from Chibok is the Nigerian and French imperative to rebrand Boko Haram as part of al-Qaida. Nigeria’s successful addition of Boko Haram to the UN Security Council’s Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee list on 22 May was a step in this direction. For Abuja, this may help to isolate Boko Haram and justify the disastrous escalation of the war since France pushed AQIM and its allies out of Mali in early 2013. For France, it creates a common bond and removes a potentially powerful voice of dissent in the AU and regional organisations about its own military presence in the Sahel.

Yet al-Qaida, for all its strategic interest in Nigeria’s 90 million Muslims, has shown little interest in Boko Haram and its use of indiscriminate violence against mostly Muslim civilians. Boko Haram has, in rhetoric and action, showed limited interest in a wider struggle beyond Islamicising Nigeria. It almost certainly has links to AQIM and splinter groups in Mali and Niger but these are not obviously strong. Al-Qaida and Boko Haram are not natural bedfellows, but post-Chibok dynamics, including US and Israeli military in northern Nigeria, are pushing them together, potentially consolidating a regional insurgency that is as much anti-western as anti-Nigerian.

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