What’s in a name? Boko Haram gets a new terror title
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The US officially designated Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram a “foreign terrorist organisation” this week. But why did it take so long? And is the new label likely to tackle the threat – or exacerbate it?
When US State Department sources earlier this week revealed Washington’s plan to formally designate the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram a “foreign terrorist organisation,” the news was greeted with some perplexity – for very different reasons.
Boko Haram has been blamed for a number of attacks on schools, churches, mosques, banks and government installations that have killed thousands of people, mostly in northeastern Nigeria, over the past few years.
In August 2011, the group conducted a suicide bombing at the UN headquarters in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, killing 21 people. A Nigerian military crackdown this year has seen Boko Haram fighters crossing into neighbouring Cameroon, where they kidnapped a French family in February before releasing them months later. And on Friday, Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of a French priest in Cameroon near the Nigerian border.
Western intelligence officials, foreign ministers and security experts have repeatedly said Boko Haram has ties to al Qaeda’s North African branch, AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb).
The group’s leader, a keffiyeh-sporting Nigerian local named Abubaker Shekau, has been dubbed, “the terror chief who came back from the dead”. His video statements typically feature him in camouflage fatigues, flanked by assault rifles and mortars, as he warns the likes of Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, US President Barack Obama and French President François Hollande.
So, why did it take so long – and so many deaths – for the US to formally designate a spade a spade?
On the other hand, over the past few months, many experts – as well as Nigerian and US diplomats – have publicly opposed the moves to formally label Boko Haram a foreign terrorist organisation (FTO).
More than a month before Wednesday’s formal FTO designation, former US ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell warned that American interests in Nigeria “could become a Boko Haram target” if the US and Nigerian governments strengthened ties “under the guise of a common ‘war on terror’”.
In a CNN column, Campbell noted that, “Instead of the international jihad, Boko Haram continues to be focused primarily on internal Nigerian issues. It shows little interest in southern Nigeria, let alone Europe or the United States.”
Nigeria’s ambassador to the US Adebowale Adefuye also weighed in against the designation. Following a May 2012 meeting between top Nigerian and US officials in Washington, Adefuye told reporters his government opposed an FTO designation, noting that Nigerian authorities could “contain the Boko Haram menace” on their own, just as it managed to quell the militancy in the oil-rich southern Niger Delta region.
So, why were the opinions of senior US and Nigerian envoys ignored? And more importantly, now that Boko Haram has been formally designated a terrorist organisation, is it likely to help or hinder the mission to tackle the threat in Africa’s most populous and largest oil-producing nation?
Dialogue now off the table
In the run-up to Wednesday’s formal designation, US lawmakers had been pushing for the move since the August 2011 UN office suicide bombing.
At a congressional hearing on Wednesday, US lawmakers heard the emotional testimony of a Boko Haram victim, a Christian man from the northeastern Yobe state, who ended his harrowing account with a plea: “Do everything that you can to end this ruthless, religious persecution in northern Nigeria”.
Founded in the northeastern Nigerian town of Maiduguri around 2002, Boko Haram - which in the local Hausa language means “Western education is sacrilege” – aims to implement strict Sharia law across Nigeria, a multi-ethnic nation of more than 160 million people split largely into a Muslim majority north and a Christian and animist south. Experts have long worried that local militant Islamist groups could ignite the sectarian tinderbox in the West Africa’s regional powerhouse.
Shehu Sani, a prominent Nigerian human rights activist and president of the Civil Rights Congress of Nigeria, is keenly aware of the concerns. In 2011, Sani served as a mediator in talks between the government and Boko Haram in a bid to negotiate a solution to the problem.
The talks failed due to the lack of political will by the Jonathan administration, according to Sani, who faults “hawks in the government and security contractors who suffocated the attempt”.
A longtime proponent of negotiations with Boko Haram, Sani today is a resigned man.
“You can’t dialogue with a group that has been outlawed. You can’t dialogue with a leader with a bounty on his head. You can’t dialogue with a group that has been designated a foreign terrorist organisation,” said Sani in a phone interview with FRANCE 24.
Last year, Shekau and two other senior Boko Haram figures were listed by the US State Department as “Special Designated Global Terrorists,” which prohibits US nationals from “engaging in transactions” with designated individuals.
Boko Haram’s money trail begins and ends at home
In a statement announcing the FTO designation of Boko Haram and a splinter group, Ansaru, on Wednesday, the White House noted that, "By cutting these terrorist organisations off from US financial institutions and enabling banks to freeze assets held in the United States, these designations demonstrate our strong support for Nigeria's fight against terrorism and its efforts to address security challenges in the north."
But when pressed about any known assets of either Boko Haram or Ansaru in the US, a senior US administration official was unable to provide any details and instead referred reporters to the Treasury Department.
“I’m not aware of the groups having billions of dollars in banks abroad,” said Sani before sarcastically adding, “I know [Nigerian] politicians who are defrauding the country in shady deals. I suppose this is a good anti-corruption measure.”
Very little is known about the finances of the shadowy regional jihadist groups. Many experts believe local bank robberies provide Boko Haram with its main funding source. In a Twitter posting on Thursday, Brandon Kendhammer, a political science professor at Ohio University, wryly noted, “Most intel I've seen suggests that Boko Haram's money is already in Nigerian banks…waiting to be stolen.”
The thorny issue of security forces’ human rights record
If Twitter is any barometer of Nigeria’s national mood, Boko Haram’s FTO designation has been overwhelmingly welcomed by ordinary Nigerians sickened by the violence.
And if Nigerian Ambassador Adefuye once believed his government opposed the move, there was no official Nigerian opposition on display following Wednesday’s listing – far from it.
Welcoming the designation, Nigerian Defence spokesman Brigadier General Chris Olukolade said, "It appears they [US authorities] now understand the reality of the challenges we face in dealing with Boko Haram,” adding that it would further the “understanding and cooperation in the fight against terrorism”.
It’s also likely to further US military and counter-terror assistance to Nigeria – which, in turn, opens the thorny issue of the Nigerian security services’ human rights track record.
International rights groups have extensively documented human rights violations by Nigerian security services as well as corruption in the police force. Addressing these concerns on Wednesday, the State Department noted that, "All of our assistance to Nigeria stresses the importance of protecting civilians and ensuring that human rights are respected.”
Over the past six months, emergency rule has been declared in three northern Nigerian states. But according to Sani, “The state of emergency has not helped tackle the violence. It has only given security services impunity to commit gross acts of human rights violations without being held accountable.”
Ordinary Nigerians stopped at airports
Despite these concerns, ordinary Nigerians support the government’s military solution to the Boko Haram threat and have welcomed the group’s FTO designation.
But Sani insists that, “Many people are ignorant about what this designation is about. It’s ordinary Nigerians who will be monitored or blacklisted. It’s not Boko Haram members who will be surveyed and interrogated at airports. It’s ordinary Nigerians going about their business, trying to make a living.”
He concedes that in the short term “people think this will bring a solution to the problem. But when it doesn’t happen, people will start questioning the value of the designation.”
The solution, according to Sani, must include the possibility of negotiations as well as a commitment to address the deep-rooted socio-economic grievances in Nigeria’s impoverished, poorly administered northern states. “This is a local problem,” Sani maintained. “It needs to be solved locally.”
In a blog post on the Washington-based Council of Foreign Relations website, former US ambassador Campbell warned that the “FTO designation could also have the perverse consequences of enhancing the prestige of Boko Haram”.
Sani agrees with Campbell’s assessment. “This will only raise their profile among international terror groups and there is a possibility of them becoming more dangerous,” he cautioned. “For me, this designation only serves the interests of the government of the Unites States. I think this will simply compound the problem on the ground, it will not tackle the insurgency.”