JANUARY 15, 2015 — Boko Haram, Nigeria’s Islamist militants, got the world’s attention last year after kidnapping 276 schoolgirls. The despicable group still holds most of the girls, is still untamed and now appears to control much of the remote north of the country.
On Jan. 3, Boko Haram showed up in Baga, the last government-controlled town in Nigeria’s far north, and began shooting. Armed with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, insurgents overran the local military base. They murdered civilians, burned houses to the ground and chased off survivors.
Two weeks later, the extent of the carnage in Baga isn’t clear. The town is cut off and the Nigerian government is providing few details. Estimates of the dead range from dozens to 150 to 2,000. The most specific picture to emerge comes from terrorized locals who fled: “I walked through five villages and each one I passed was empty except for dead bodies,” Yusuf Idris, a member of a civilian militia, told Britain’s Guardian newspaper.
Nigeria’s chaos is of its own making. The country is oil-rich. Its economy is Africa’s biggest and one of the world’s fastest-growing. Nigeria is also plagued by corruption and government incompetence. And it’s fractured by ethnic and religious tension: The wealthier south is mainly Christian, the poverty-stricken north is Muslim.
Out of Nigeria’s disarray came Boko Haram, whose name is local shorthand for “Western education is sinful.” The terrorism army, which seeks to carve out an Islamic state, has killed thousands and challenges Nigerian forces across several fronts. This week it launched an attack on a border town in neighboring Cameroon.
Several days ago Boko Haram adopted a shocking new strategy: employing a young girl of about 10 as a suicide bomber. Witnesses told The New York Times she detonated an explosive hidden under her veil in a marketplace in Maiduguri, killing as many as 20 and wounding more. “It’s something quite new, and it’s disturbing, using these young, young girls wearing hijabs,” a federal police official told the Times.
If Boko Haram’s aims and tactics sound familiar, yes, there is a connection to al-Qaida and the Islamic State. But it’s mainly that they share a twisted worldview: using terrorism to fight a religious war. Boko Haram is a Nigeria-based movement focused on attacking local targets and taking local control. It has not shown itself to be an active ally of al-Qaida and others in global jihad.
That shouldn’t diminish the threat: Africa is a battlefield, and fertile recruiting ground, in the terror war. The massacre in Paris at Charlie Hebdo was committed by two brothers of Algerian descent. In 2012, an al-Qaida affiliate in North Africa briefly took control of much of Mali. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the al-Qaida “underwear” bomber who tried to bring down Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day 2009, is Nigerian. The point isn’t to demonize Africans; it’s to realize that the terror movement has strong tentacles far beyond the Middle East.
If the chaos in Nigeria continues, it will present potential opportunities for the broader jihadi movement to use Boko Haram-controlled territory as a base or haven. Nigeria has to get a handle on the violence, restore security and defeat Boko Haram. The United States can’t fight this battle but is willing to lend support. The trouble is that Nigeria’s government, reluctant to publicly admit its inability to stop let alone crush Boko Haram, gives potential allies the brush-off as much as it accepts their help.
One reason for the government’s split personality: Next month Nigeria holds a presidential election, pitting incumbent Goodluck Jonathan against Muhammadu Buhari, the main opposition candidate. Both vow to defeat Boko Haram — but they haven’t yet talked about losing the town of Baga.
There’s more than a whiff of denial in Nigeria’s weak response to a crisis that has victimized millions. That’s dangerous. Granted, the reach of Washington and other governments is limited here. That said, Nigeria’s long-term prosperity depends not only on its national security but also on keeping its share of the global oil market. That ought to create some leverage by which other governments can help Nigeria admit its vulnerability and defeat Boko Haram.
We hope the Obama administration finds ways to awaken and engage the country’s leadership. In ways many Americans haven’t yet grasped, Nigeria’s name belongs on the lengthening list of states — Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and many more — where Islamist militants threaten to destroy history’s advancing arc of civilization and liberty.