Africa Notes: Boko Haram and a failed special forces rescue attempt

Boko Haram is increasingly capturing the media’s attention. Its members have engaged in an unfortunately consistent set of attacks on the Nigerian population over the last two years. As Richard Dowden says in a blog post today (“Boko Haram – More Complicated Than You Think”), this group began as a somewhat peaceful group. For Dowden, it was after their leader was tortured to death in 2009 that violence became part of their agenda. (See also Alex Thurston: “Boko Haram in National Perspective”.)

This group has raised a number of significant challenges for the Nigerian government, which still deals with instability in the Niger Delta. They have tried to ramp up their security, to try them in courts, and to engage in dialogue. It is still not entirely clear what they want (see Dickinson on “What Boko Haram Wants”and Anzalone’s discussion of this), but it is clear that their primary focus is on Nigeria-specific issues. So while their tactics and “jihadi” framing (and perhaps funding?) might tie them to Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), they haven’t yet emphasized that other group’s global agenda.

The impacts of these events are happening at multiple levels. Within Nigeria, there is the obvious political instability that such terrorism breeds. A report last Friday said that 10,000 people had fled Northern Nigeria for Niger and Chad (two of the very poorest countries in the world and not the first place I would go if I were escaping a calamity!). A recent report from Executive Analysis, Ltd at African Arguments, factors in Boko Haram’s activities in considering Nigeria’s “risks of a coup or civil war.” There are also important economic effects within Nigeria. Alex, at SahelBlog, also notes this (and is a great source for information on Boko Haram in general). Chikjioke Ohuocha reported recently for Reuters that the insurgency is “forcing extra spending on security…diverting money away from needed infrastructure spending and could be costing as much as 2 percent of the country’s economic output.” He also cited an investment analyst as saying that the scale and location of the attacks (far from the major commercial hubs) have meant that so far “foreign investors are prepared to live with the threat”.

At the global level, this is impacting international views on both Nigeria and the African continent. IR blogger Walter Russell Mead things Nigeria’s government is “doing little to defuse the threat”. And he uses Boko Haram as an example of how Africa’s problems are still really deep. All of that Afro-optimism that we have been hearing about economic growth across Africa, he suggests, is probably just another “false dawn”.

What happened yesterday: the failed rescue attempt.

British and Nigerian Special Forces failed in a rescue attempt of Italian Franco Lamolinara and British citizen Chris McManus, both of whom were kidnapped by members of Boko Haram. The kidnappers apparently killed the two hostages as retaliation during the rescue attempt. The Italian government is reportedly upset that they were not informed that this action was going to take place.

Alex Thurston at SahelBlog has an important take on these events. Many had said that Boko Haram was not yet engaging in kidnapping but these events suggest we now have clearer evidence to the contrary:

any doubts about whether it really was Boko Haram that kidnapped the Europeans – doubts that stem from the facts that Kebbi is far outside Boko Haram’s normal zone of operations, that Boko Haram never seems to have kidnapped a Westerner before, or that communications from the kidnappers never seemed to fit with the style of either Boko Haram or AQIM – may be swept aside as the narrative takes hold that this kidnapping was a Boko Haram operation, full stop. There are, indeed, many possible explanations that deserve consideration, ranging from the possibility that the kidnappers were opportunistic criminals to the possibility that they were copycats to the possibility that it was Boko Haram itself, or a splinter group. Those complexities, uncertainties, and nuances may now be ignored. Perhaps more importantly, the idea – or the reality (because I really don’t know) – that Boko Haram is kidnapping Westerners will play into larger narratives about what kind of threat the group poses to Nigeria and to the West.

At least some of the kidnappers have been arrested and President Goodluck Jonathan said in a statement “the perpetrators of the murderous act, who have all been arrested, would be made to face the full wrath of the law.”

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