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The Rise of Boko Haram: US Responsibility, Hypocrisy

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Brett McCully     Permalink
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From Medina Dauda - Voice of America
A truck promotes the #BringBackOurGirls hash tag in Nigeria.
(image by Medina Dauda - Voice of America)

On April 15, militant Nigerian group Boko Haram kidnapped nearly 300 schoolgirls, leading to shock and revulsion around the world as well as an international social media campaign under the motto "Bring Back Our Girls".

Mostly unspoken in discussions of Boko Haram and its monstrous crime is a story of unintended consequences tied to the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya to topple Moamar Gaddafi as well as economic globalization and the legacy of IMF interventions in the Nigerian economy.

The Security Situation

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, notes that in Libya "a modest military intervention by the US and others helped to create a vacuum, now mostly filled by terrorists." President François Hollande, referring to Boko Haram, said their weapons, including "heavy weapons of an unimaginable sophistication " came from Libya and that [their] training took place in Mali before the ouster of its Islamist leaders". The conclusion, then, must be that the Western intervention in Libya created the conditions which allowed Boko Haram and Mali's Islamist militants to seize weapons from the country, provoking the unrest in Mali and giving space for training Boko Haram's fighters.

Furthermore, "much of the responsibility for the rise of the Boko Haram extremist group may lie with the Nigerian government itself", according to Sarah Chayes of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. A combination of economic liberalization, globalization, poor governance, and brutal repression have led to the current standoff.

Regarding the recent violence, Amnesty International points to March 14th "as a tipping point when the security forces unleashed a brutal crackdown on former detainees." On this date, Boko Haram attacked a Nigerian military barracks in the city of Maiduguri, freeing "several hundred detainees." However, "as the military regained control, more than 600 people, mostly unarmed recaptured detainees, were extra-judicially executed in various locations across Maiduguri", some of them shouting that they were unaffiliated with the militant group before being shot.

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This recent "tipping point" mirrors the larger picture of Boko Haram's increasingly violent acts. Writing in the journal Current History, Kate Meagher describes the group as originally a peaceful "religious community offering education, basic services, and informal livelihoods to the disaffected". The group was soon "construed as a threat to the state and its rural base was destroyed by an army assault in 2003", leading to violent reprisals by the group, targeting mostly police stations and "culminating in a clash in 2009 in which security forces killed more than 800 Boko Haram members." In addition, the group's leader, Mohammed Yusuf, was extrajudicially killed, with the video posted online. This incident "tipped what started as a religious protest movement among the marginalized into a full-blown insurgency."

Economic Malaise

The broader context of the insurgency is a deeply corrupt government , massive inequalities between the Islamic north and Christian south of the country, and rising poverty. In her article, Meagher goes on to note that "the depredations of years of savage market reforms, and integration into a global economic system that has left much of the population as surplus labor" have also contributed to the crisis. Hence the north has an unemployment rate 50 percent higher and per capita income 50 percent lower than the south.

Many of the economic forces now depriving the north were set in motion by the institution of the 1986 structural adjustment program (SAP) demanded by the International Monetary Fund. For example, while Meagher notes that the "North's urban economy has been gutted [in part] by reductions in public employment", Thandika Mkandawire remarks in Current History's latest Africa issue that the continent "now has the lowest number of civil servants per 100 citizens" following years of disastrous SAPs. Similarly, the northern economy's mainstay, textile manufacturing, has been driven out of business by low-cost Asian alternatives as well as an " electricity supply is so erratic that businesses unable to afford generators are forced to avoid technical improvements", according to Meagher. Mkandawire offers that the IMF and World Bank pushed African countries to "refrain from investment in basic public goods" believing that "the private sector would step in to provide [them] in a more efficient way", leading to, among other consequences, "electricity blackouts".

Military Ties

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While the US "has advocated a wider economic and social-justice agenda" for Nigeria to win hearts and minds, advice ignored by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, the US has simultaneously been bolstering support for the Nigerian military.

Based out of the US Africa Command, "which is deeply unpopular across the continent", according to former UN official Adekeye Debajo, this includes several military exercises each year, as well as training and advisory missions, assistance with logistics and public affairs, and construction of military buildings, including training centers. In addition, the US spent more than $550 million during Obama's first term training and equipping West African militaries. Such assistance, however, is complicated by the so-called Leahy Amendment, which bars US aid to military units responsible for human rights abuses. John Campbell, former US ambassador to Nigeria and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, remarks that "very, very few units" are eligible for assistance today under those guidelines.

US Hypocrisy

Incidentally, the concern given to the kidnapped schoolgirls does not appear to be shared when the perpetrator of violence against children is the US. While US Secretary of State John Kerry termed the Boko Haram raid "grotesque" and the New York Times called the act "horrifying", such adjectives are reserved for official enemies.

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Brett McCully is a freelance writer, with works appearing in such outlets as the Virginia Policy Review and He resides in Oakton, VA.

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The Rise of Boko Haram: US Responsibility, Hypocrisy