In Depth

Boko Haram: why is Nigeria losing its battle with terror?

Lack of international support, political inertia and inherent corruption are to blame for bloodshed

Abubakar Shekau of Boko Haram

As the Charlie Hebdo killings dominate the European news agenda, Nigeria has been enduring some of the deadliest attacks from terrorist group Boko Haram since it began its insurgency in 2009. Thousands are believed to have died in recent days, sparking calls for urgent action.

Ignatius Kaigama, the Catholic Archbishop of the Nigerian city of Jos, has accused the international community of failing to help Nigeria take action against the Islamist militants.

His comments come after suicide bombs killed 23 people in the city of Maiduguri over the weekend. Last week, an estimated 2,000 were killed in a massacre in the town of Baga, believed to be the group's worst attack in its history. Locals say they have stopped counting the bodies left lying in the streets.

Many commentators have contrasted the international response to the attacks in Paris. Imad Mesdoua, a political analyst at consultants Africa Matters tweeted that there were "no breaking news cycles, no live reports, no international outrage, no hashtags," for Nigeria.

As the organisation continues to grow in size and terror, why does the fight against Boko Haram seem so unwinnable?

What has been the response so far?

The UK insists that, alongside the US and France, it is taking "an active role" in supporting Nigeria in its fight against Boko Haram. Recently, the British government announced that it would be providing the Nigerian military with intelligence and training advice.

A senior UK military source told the Daily Telegraph last month: "We have a small military training mission in Nigeria of only around a dozen. We are thinking of boosting that by maybe up to 100 because the Nigerian Army is making woeful progress against Boko Haram."

In the wake of the most recent attacks, the UN says it "stands ready" to assist the Nigerian government in bringing an end to the violence with "all available means and resources".

The Nigerian army has meanwhile launched a counter-insurgency, backed by air power, in the militants' stronghold in the north east of the country where a state of emergency was declared in 2013. A relatively small multinational force from Niger, Cameroon and Chad had been present in Baga, but reports suggest many soldiers fled from the insurgents.

So, what has gone wrong?

Regional analysts say the response is woefully inadequate and are calling for urgent, visible support both from within Nigeria and from key global powers.  UN Children's Fund executive director Anthony Lake said the images of bloodshed from Nigeria "should be searing the conscience of the world".

What do the politicians say?

Despite expressing his condolences for the victims of France, President Goodluck Jonathan is yet to personally comment on the recent attacks in his own country. Last year, it took the leader nearly three weeks to condemn the abduction of over 200 schoolgirls, displaying "an attitude that is as baffling as it is inexcusable", according to an Observer editorial.

While the Nigerian government has confirmed the recent attack in Baga, it placed the death toll at just 150, far below estimates made by international human rights organisations. It is often accused of intentionally underestimating the number of casualties in order to downplay the threat posed by the militants.

Local politicians "appear more focused on next month's elections" than dealing with the threat, according to BBC correspondents in the region. Media analyst Ethan Zuckerman agrees, saying Jonathan is "understandably wary" of discussing Boko Haram, as it "reminds voters that the conflict has erupted under his management" and that he has not been able to end the terror.

Only when politicians stop "filling their pockets in cooperation with criminals" and begin focusing on improving the security services and channelling funds into the impoverished north east of the country, will Boko Haram be defeated, according to The Economist.

Why can't Nigeria's army beat Boko Haram?

Despite having the largest army in West Africa, Nigeria's military has consistently failed to push back the militants. Security analysts point to a lack of investment and corruption as key reasons.

In a leaked letter to President Goodluck Jonathan, a commanding officer stationed in the besieged north east details his frustrations. He says his unit is poorly equipped, understaffed and low on morale. The letter, published on website Sahara Reporters, adds that corruption is entrenched in all levels of the military. The commander explains that his troops had been forced to flee, not because they were unwilling to fight Boko Haram militants, but because they lacked basic weapons, ammunitions and communications equipment.

"Boko Haram are better armed and are better motivated than our own troops," Kashim Shettima, the governor of Borno province told Reuters, echoing the commander's concerns. "Given the present state of affairs, it is absolutely impossible for us to defeat Boko Haram."

What should the West do?

The West stands accused of not paying enough attention to militants in Africa who appear to only have local aims. "As witnessed in the growth of al-Shabaab, these organisations have a tendency to evolve in unpredictable fashion," and the West needs to offer more urgent assistance, according to the Observer editorial.

Archbishop Kaigama believes the situation requires the kind of unity and international commitment witnessed in France in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. "We need that spirit to be spread around," he said. "Not just when it [an attack] happens in Europe, but when it happens in Nigeria, in Niger, in Cameroon."

But the BBC's Will Ross says that while the world is "slowly waking up to express shock" at the latest outbreak of violence, "it seems there is little or no appetite to become more deeply involved in this conflict."


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