Nigeria: Ending the Threat of Boko Haram

Hundreds gathered at Union Square in New York on May 3 to demand the release of some 230 schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram insurgents in Nigeria. (Photo: Michael Fleshman)

An international outcry is afoot over the kidnapping nearly a month ago of more than 200 schoolgirls, ages 16 to 18, from a boarding school in northeast Nigeria by the dreaded insurgency group Boko Haram. Last Sunday, Boko Haram reportedly kidnapped another 11 schoolgirls. Nigeria military and security agencies continue to battle Boko Haram in northeast Nigeria with limited success as the group stages more brazen attacks, killing 1,500 individuals within the first quarter of 2014, according to Amnesty International.

However, by abducting schoolgirls and its purported leader promising to sell the abducted children as slaves in foreign countries, Boko Haram has ignited global condemnation and resolve for decisive action. The United States and the United Kingdom are among key countries offering diplomatic, intelligence and military assistance to Nigeria to rescue the schoolgirls and end the Boko Haram insurgency. In a significant change of heart, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan now welcomes foreign assistance.

To mount a successful rescue operation and ultimately defeat Boko Haram, it is important to understand the motives and reported operations of the terror organization. For nearly 12 years, Boko Haram, from its humble origin as a political enforcement gang for local politicians in the Borno state of Nigeria, has grown to wage a concerted two-pronged war—to stop the spread of Western education, especially for girls in Muslim parts of Northern Nigeria, and to replace the constitutionally mandated secular Nigerian government with a strict sharia-based theocracy.

By feasting on youth unemployment in northeast Nigeria and lackluster government services, Boko Haram continues to enjoy a steady young recruitment base. The unresolved extrajudicial killing of the Boko Haram founder years ago is another major recruitment pitch. Suspicions of tacit local political and elite support abound. Anger by local residents regarding heavy-handed operations by Nigeria's military and security forces is another reported recruitment tool. The topography of northeast Nigeria, with forbidding forest ranges, hills and valleys, provides adequate cover for quick-strike forces. The reported decentralization of Boko Haram operations and recruitment of foreign fighters is another advantage thwarting security dragnets in Nigeria. In addition, Boko Haram operates freely within neighboring countries such as Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

To achieve its aim, Boko Haram bombs and kills innocent children, men and women of various ethnic groups and religious denominations, just as it did in two recent deadly attacks in Nigeria's capital, Abuja, between April 14 and April 30, killing at least 79 civilians and maiming hundreds. Boko Haram has previously bombed churches, mosques, government offices and the United Nations compound in Abuja. The Nigerian government responded with intensified military action, a declaration of a state of emergency in the three most affected states in northeast Nigeria and a shutdown of telecommunication services.


The Nigerian government must comprehensively deploy its military and security assets to lead rescue efforts in the short term, and to decisively defeat Boko Haram in the long term. Operational surprise is now probably lost due to lack of a rescue mission for nearly one month. However, the search-and-rescue mission could benefit from concerted national and international action. One important operational factor remains unassailable: No other country, including significant powers such as the United States, the United Kingdom and France, can do for Nigeria what its government must do on its own. It is important to note that all military actions should respect basic human rights. The government should also implement a proactive strategy that prevents Boko Haram from extending its base of operations throughout the country.

The government should identify and prosecute suspected sponsors and enablers of Boko Haram. This is an important component to building confidence in a global concerted action against Boko Haram. Political parties, professional groups and civil society in Nigeria should close ranks and work closely with the government to fish out financing, operational and logistical backers of Boko Haram.

Nigerian citizens in northeast Nigeria should be the eyes and ears of the effort against Boko Haram. To achieve this objective, the federal government must work together with state and local governments in northeast Nigeria in areas of security operations, youth employment and inclusive economic growth. It is not a coincidence that one of the poorest regions in Nigeria is now home to its deadliest security threat. The six-month state of emergency first introduced a year ago in three northeast states and extended once should be ended to allow the mobilization of ordinary individuals, families and communities. The 2015 national, legislative and state elections should be held in northeast Nigeria, despite ambivalence by the national electoral body, to show national solidarity with long-suffering Nigerians in affected areas. Personal and community complaints against injustices by security forces should be acted upon with dispatch. Traditional rulers and community leaders should be part of a comprehensive community-based security network focused on denying Boko Haram operational sanctuaries.

Nigeria should work with neighboring governments, such as Chad, Niger and Cameroon, to end cross-border terror activities. In particular, Nigeria should work with neighboring countries to deny Boko Haram recruitment of foreign fighters and to forestall quick the cross-border escape of its operatives. In addition, the government should work closely with the governments of Mali and Libya to close operational linkages with reported Boko Haram Al-Qaida affiliates.

Nigeria should take advantage of technical support from international allies and partners. Enhancing technological capabilities is a primary need. Taking advantage of the latest advances in military technology, intelligence and hardware is critical. Enhancing the capacity of Nigerians living in the northeast to reach security forces with information about Boko Haram movements and activities is also critical. Seamless coordination of deployed capabilities and quick response to actionable intelligence is paramount in successful anti-insurgency campaigns.

Nigeria should mobilize its citizens, home and abroad, to unite in the fight against Boko Haram. The government in Abuja should seize this moment to unite all Nigerians, irrespective of ethnic and religious differences. To achieve this objective, the government should become more accountable, transparent and forthcoming in the fight against Boko Haram. The government should never use the war against Boko Haram to win political advantage or discredit opponents. Nigerians should support national, state and local government efforts to end the Boko Haram threat.

Nigeria faces a significant threat in Boko Haram. The northeast part of Nigeria is under siege and socioeconomically prostrate. Thousands of lives have been lost and untold billions of dollars spent fighting Boko Haram. The kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls and the threat to sell them into slavery is the last straw. The government of Nigeria and its international allies must not only rescue the kidnapped schoolgirls but should also decisively end the menace of Boko Haram.

Chinua Akukwe, an Africa analyst, has written extensively on health and development issues related to Africa. He is the author of five books.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Chinua Akukwe.