How Not to Respond to Boko Haram’s Massacres

Boko Haram’s recent massacre in the northeastern Nigerian city of Baga has brought more attention to the militant group than any event since their kidnapping of 276 girls in April.  Initial reports placed the death toll at as many as 2,000 people, although it was likely in the hundreds.  Much media attention has focused on the large lack of attention this attack received relative to the attacks on Charlie Hebdo.  While the scale of Boko Haram’s atrocities merits great attention, efforts to pressure the Nigerian government should proceed with caution.  Forcing the government to take Boko Haram seriously would be major progress, but the recent attention could also lead to rash and destructive offensive tactics from the Nigerian military.

The attention on the Baga attacks has put President Goodluck Jonathan under pressure.  As this incident coincides with the buildup to the election February 14th, attention will be intense for the next month.  However, this attention will disappear soon after, and Jonathan will know this.  The Chibok kidnappings prompted the enormously popular #bringbackourgirls (which it should be noted was a largely Nigerian movement, and international attention was only a part of it), but even that attention waned after a few months despite the failure to return the kidnapped girls.  If Goodluck Jonathan can beat out Muhammadu Buhari and appear to beat back Boko Haram while attention focuses on him, he will be in a strong position when the attention fades.

Jonathan seems to have realized that in the short-term he must appear to fight Boko Haram.  He initially showed disinterest towards Baga, condemning the Charlie Hebdo attacks while remaining silent about Boko Haram’s.  However, on January 15th he made a surprise visit to Maiduguri, his first visit to the Northeast since March 2013.  Given the immediate but likely fading attention on Jonathan, an offensive against Boko Haram would best suit his interests. Steps which would actually protect civilians against Boko Haram, such as professionalizing the military, giving them adequate equipment, and defending citizens when Boko Haram attacks would have relatively invisible effects in the short-term and also point to Jonathan’s past failures.  An offensive, however, would immediately show he is taking the threat from Boko Haram seriously, and given the major threat from Buhari he needs result quickly.  Although Jonathan’s word should be taken with skepticism, his statement in Maiduguri that “all the areas under the control of Boko Haram will soon be recaptured” suggests he will pursue this approach.

Offensive tactics against Boko Haram would cause large damage to Northeastern Nigeria’s citizens.  First, the Nigerian military would likely lose.  It is hampered by low wages and corruption, and Boko Haram has superior weaponry.  Counterinsurgency offensives have also been enormously dangerous for Nigerian citizens.  When a state of emergency was called in 2013, Human Rights Watch found that “the large number of troops deployed to enforce the state of emergency engaged in indiscriminate arrest, detention, torture and extra-judicial killing.” Baga itself shows the risks the military presents.  Before this most recent attack the town was known for the 2013 massacre of approximately 200 civilians by the Nigerian military.  Yet even if Jonathan launches an offensive with disastrous results, it is unlikely to hurt him in his period of attention.  Information is extremely limited in Northeastern Nigeria.  Well over a week after the Baga attacks reported death tolls of 150 and 2,000 are both still plausible and journalists have not been able to make it to Baga.  The military can also be an obstacle, and after the 2013 Baga massacre the military blocked journalists and relief agencies from accessing the town.  If the full details of a failed offensive ever came out, it is unlikely to be until the election is over and after international attention has moved on.  Whether or not it is true, Jonathan could plausibly point to victories in the buildup to the election.

The likely consequences of a military offensive mean we should tread very carefully when pressuring the Nigerian government to respond to the Baga massacre.   Jonathan’s neglect of the Boko Haram crisis is a complete failure of governance and it would be a massive step forward if the Nigerian political elite took the threat seriously.  Yet pressure on the Nigerian government centered on immediately “doing something” against Boko Haram will lead to rash and harmful policies.  The people in Northeastern Nigeria are already in constant fear of attacks from one brutal army; the first priority should be making sure it’s not two.