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Nigeria Keeps Playing the Boko Haram Blame Game

The Islamist insurgency group wreaking havoc across northern Nigeria and Cameroon is starting to pose a larger regional threat. But the Nigerian government has been slow to act and fast to point fingers.

NIGERIA-VOTE
Banners of Nigerian President and presidential candidate of the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) Goodluck Jonathan (L) and Vice President Namadi Sambo hang from a lamp post along a Lagos highway on January 20, 2015. Former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, who was in Abuja last week urged all presidential candidates and parties to rise above the personal and debate the issues that matter. But the message appears to have gone unheeded, with fresh attacks from the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) against Muhammadu Buhari, and from the main opposition All Progressives Congress (APC). Voters elect a new president and parliament on February 14, then two weeks later return to cast their ballots in gubernatorial and state assembly polls. AFP PHOTO/PIUS UTOMI EKPEI (Photo credit should read PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images)

Goodluck Jonathan’s national security advisor has a simple message for the Nigerian military: “If you don’t want to fight … get out of the army.”

Speaking at the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House in London on Thursday, Sambo Dasuki said the cowardice of Nigeria’s army is the reason why a multinational military base in Baga fell to Boko Haram terrorists earlier this month in a bloody attack that deeply embarrassed Jonathan’s fragile government.

“We had a lot of cowards, and it turned out there was a problem in the recruitment process,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of people who we believe joined because they wanted a job, not because they wanted a career in the military. And it’s most of them who are running away and telling stories.”

Soldiers at the base, which was attacked the first weekend in January, claim they deserted as a means of survival only after repeatedly calling for reinforcements that never arrived. Although the base was labeled as a multinational base intended to provide security to the Baga area, which borders Lake Chad, only Nigerian soldiers were stationed there.

Boko Haram has used building political tension ahead of Nigeria’s presidential election to further disrupt daily life in the country’s already disenfranchised north. On Feb. 14, Jonathan will face Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim from the north running on a platform of increased security.

Jonathan has faced international criticism for his inability to control the Islamists, who took responsibility in a YouTube video this week for the attacks in the Baga area that left up to 2,000 dead and 3,700 structures destroyed. Many of these casualties occurred when Boko Haram attacked the civilian population in the days following the military base attack, when the military was not present to protect them.

Joe Siegle, director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, told Foreign Policy that the Nigerian army’s reluctance to launch an offensive strategy against Boko Haram has helped the group slowly gain control of poorly guarded territory in the north.

“Given the random attacks on civilians across dispersed villages in an extensive area, they’re going to need a large number of troops who can go in and provide protection for the populations there,” Siegle said.

And Dasuki’s comments are just the latest in a string of instances where Jonathan or his mouthpieces blame someone — anyone — else for his administration’s failure to slow down the terrorist group.

Last May, Jonathan referred to Boko Haram as an international terrorist threat brought to Nigeria by other extremist groups. And in November, the Nigerian ambassador to the United States blamed the Obama administration’s refusal to provide arms to Nigeria for the military’s struggle countering the threat. The United States will not provide arms to Nigeria due to past human rights violations, but when the American military launched a training program for a specialized Nigerian force to counter the terrorists, Jonathan abruptly canceled it.

These contradicting narratives were further highlighted when Dasuki said Thursday that Boko Haram’s latest video, where the group shows off the military equipment looted from the Baga base, proves the soldiers had what they would have needed to fight off the assault.

“Anybody who leaves that [equipment] to say he isn’t well armed is not telling the truth,” he said.

These comments don’t quite line up with Jonathan’s visit to soldiers in the northern city of Maiduguri last week, when Agence France-Presse reported he told the disgruntled troops he would “continue to provide you with the latest equipment for better performance.”

Representatives from more than a dozen African countries met in Niger this week to discuss the possibility of creating a multinational force to address the group’s growing threat. But as a hugely powerful economic force in West Africa, Nigeria has been hesitant to admit any need for regional assistance. And accepting international aid just weeks before an election could reflect poorly on Jonathan’s security policies, which are already a major weakness in his political platform.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell told Foreign Policy these offers of international assistance — including the African Union-backed plan for a multinational force — won’t mean much if the Nigerian government won’t allow foreign troops to cross their borders to help in the fight.

Campbell added not to expect a large multinational force to come to fruition anytime soon. Or at least until serious national interests, such as falling oil prices and the devaluation of the Nigerian naira, are at stake.

The insurrection in the isolated north “hardly dominates Nigerian national life,” Campbell said.

Chad reportedly sent hundreds of reinforcements to Cameroon, which shares a lengthy border with Nigeria and has faced repeated attacks by Boko Haram in recent months. Last weekend, the group kidnapped up to 80 people in Cameroon, sparking fears in Cameroonian civilian populations in the country’s far north. And last week, the Russian ambassador to Cameroon promised intense military assistance there by the end of the year.

Dasuki said Thursday that assistance can come in different forms, and ensured that physical troops from Chad will also be crossing over to Nigerian soil to provide assistance.

But for now, so long as the insurgency can stay contained to the north, Nigeria seems willing to brush off the need for a major military offensive against the terrorist group.

“Between national pride, being the strongest country and economy in the region, and of course the election coming up…it’s an awkward time for them,” Siegle said.

PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images

Siobhán O’Grady is a freelance journalist working across sub-Saharan Africa. She previously worked as a staff writer at Foreign Policy. @siobhan_ogrady

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