As ISIS Upends States in the Mideast, Boko Haram is Doing the Same in Africa

Governments and Media, Seized With Iraq-Syria Crisis, Are Paying Scant Attention in Nigeria

In the ninety days since ISIS militants suddenly seized Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, international news media, governments, and even last week’s NATO Summit have swung their attention and agendas to debating how to counter the explosive growth of the group’s apparent capacities and its threat to Iraq and the wider region.

Alarmingly similar is the upheaval spreading with little notice in north-central Africa. The Boko Haram militant group is “achieving many of the same operational and strategic successes . . . including significant dominion over territory and populations,” according to J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. Except for a brief spasm of attention last spring – after Boko Haram kidnapped nearly three hundred girls from a Nigerian government school – the international community has given little, and inconsistent, focus to the African case.

For a few weeks after the girls’ kidnappings, governments, news media, and even entertainment celebrities made Boko Haram a sensation, notably with a social-media campaign called #BringBackOurGirls. But the story receded from public view almost as quickly. The “burgeoning threat is receiving little of the attention it deserves and even less of the resources necessary to combat it,” Pham writes.

A Governance Vacuum

In an essay this week for the Council’s AfricaSource blog, Pham writes that, like ISIS, Boko Haram is benefitting from a vacuum of power and governance by a weak state. A particular collapse has come within Nigeria’s military, which has surrendered trucks, armored vehicles and weapons to the guerrillas without much of a fight. Demoralized Nigerian troops last month fled in battalion strength into neighboring Cameroon, with hundreds of soldiers surrendering their weapons at a border crossing to seek refuge.

Also as in the Middle East, Boko Haram has rapidly expanded the size of the territory and the population it controls, and its capacity to strike militarily. As of a year ago, it already was the effective government for an area “roughly the size of Maryland,” Pham writes. Its stronghold centers in Nigeria’s northeastern state of Borno, but Boko Haram has in recent months easily spread its reach across the country’s borders. In May the group ambushed a military patrol in Niger’s region of Diffa, and in July it kidnapped the wife of Cameroon’s deputy prime minister in the northern Cameroon locale of Kolafata.

A week ago, Boko Haram captured its biggest city yet, Bama, a center of about 300,000 people from which it now threatens the metropolis of northeastern Nigeria, Maiduguri.

Last week, “Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield was characteristically straightforward,” about the problem, Pham writes, saying “‘This is a sober reality check for all of us. We are past time for denial and pride.’” She announced that an Obama administration plan “to launch a ‘major’ border security program for Nigeria and its neighbors.”  That’s a start, Pham writes, but much more is needed – or the “ISIS won’t be the only Islamic State against which a strategy will have to be developed and a coalition assembled.”

Related Experts: J. Peter Pham

Image: Burned cars litter a shattered shopping center in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, following a bomb attack by the Boko Haram movement that killed at least 21 people on June 25. As the group expands the territory it rules in the far northeast, it has pursued bomb attacks in cities of Nigeria’s Middle Belt region and the south. (REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde)