Nigeria’s President Prefers to See No Evil, Speak No Evil
Goodluck Jonathan was quick to condemn last week’s terror attacks in France. When it comes to violence inside his own country, however, he’s keeping his mouth shut.
With the world’s gaze focused on Paris last week, militants from Boko Haram destroyed the town of Baga and several neighboring villages in northern Nigeria, killing up to 2,000 people and displacing thousands more. On Saturday, at least another 16 people were killed when extremists strapped a bomb to a girl who may have been as young as 10 and then detonated it in a crowded marketplace.
You’d expect Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to condemn the carnage inside his country, particularly after he called last week’s massacre at a French satirical newspaper a “dastardly terrorist attack.” But you’d be wrong: Jonathan has yet to acknowledge that any of the Boko Haram attacks even took place.
On Monday, a spokesman for the Nigerian defense ministry said the death toll from the Baga massacre had been “exaggerated” and said the government’s own count put the tally at 150. Other groups are working toward a solid tally, but the Nigerian government has a long history of underestimating and downplaying the prevalence of Boko Haram.
Jonathan, who has been widely criticized for his failure to defeat the group, is up for re-election on Feb. 14, when he will face Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim northerner running on a platform of increased security.
On Sunday, Nigerian archbishop Ignatius Kaigama told the BBC that the West hasn’t done enough to counter the extremists. But it was Jonathan who ordered the cancellation of a Pentagon program designed to create a special battalion capable of beating back Boko Haram. The United States had been training Nigerian fighters, but hadn’t been arming them because of earlier human rights violations by the Nigerian army, including mass killings and rapes.
Jonathan’s administration and his supporters have tried to blame the West for Boko Haram’s rise, rather than taking responsibility for the group’s growing threat. But that’s a harder argument to make now that even top United Nations officials are demanding action. On Sunday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s office said the secretary-general was “appalled” by the Baga attacks and warned that Boko Haram threatens the stability of the entire region. Leila Zerrougui, the U.N. envoy for children and conflict, arrived in Nigeria Sunday to meet with government leaders and local partners in Abuja before traveling further north to meet with displaced children and their families. The U.N. was unable to confirm whether or not she would meet with Jonathan, but a spokesman told Foreign Policy her six-day trip was planned prior to Saturday’s attacks and that tackling Boko Haram is at the top of her agenda for 2015.
Rona Peligal, deputy director of the Africa division at Human Rights Watch, told Foreign Policy that while Boko Haram’s alleged use of a young child as a suicide bomber this weekend is especially gruesome, this is not the first evidence of Boko Haram turning to children to intensify their attacks. The schoolgirls kidnapped from Chibok last spring were not only sexually abused but “were forced to serve as decoys for Boko Haram and engage in harming other people,” she said.
And it doesn’t help that on the other end of the battle, children are also being used to try to slow the group down.
As the Nigerian army continuously fails to respond to the group’s attacks, children are increasingly joining the Civilian Joint Task Force, a vigilante group battling the extremists in the north. And HRW has reported that when boys recruited by Boko Haram are caught by security forces, they are often abused or killed, regardless of their age. Some witnesses told HRW that Muslim children are regularly targeted by Nigerian security forces and then disappear into secret prisons for years at a time. According to some former detainees, the conditions in holding cells have led to hundreds of deaths from dehydration, hunger, and abuse.
Nigeria’s neighbors, including Chad and Cameroon, have also suffered from Jonathan’s inability to beat back Boko Haram. On Monday, the Cameroonian military reported that Boko Haram launched the second attack against a Cameroonian military base in just two weeks. Monday’s strike targeted a base in Kolofata, 10 kilometers from the Nigerian border. Previous assaults on Kolofata have included the kidnapping of the deputy prime minister’s wife, who was rescued in an operation in June that left at least 12 Cameroonian security personnel dead.
Cameroonian government spokesman Issa Tchiroma Bakary said in a televised statement that the Cameroonian military lost one soldier but killed 143 militants in Monday’s attack. When militants attacked a more vulnerable Cameroonian military base in late December, the Cameroonian government was forced to respond with airstrikes.
Schools near the Nigerian border in both Chad and Cameroon have preemptively closed to protect students targeted by Boko Haram, whose name translates roughly from the Hausa language to “Western education is forbidden.”
And while there was a momentary outburst of support for Nigeria in the aftermath of the Chibok kidnappings, very little has been done to guarantee the safety of those suffering under the group’s violent crusade in the north — or to try tackling the problem at its root, by arming troops to fight the terrorists.