On January 11, 2012, the Atlantic Council organized a conference call briefing with J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center, to discuss the extremist militant sect Boko Haram and rising security challenge it poses to Nigeria. Atlantic Council Executive Vice President Damon Wilson moderated discussion.
As the most populous country in Africa, the fourth largest oil supplier to the US, and fourth largest contributor to UN peacekeeping operations troops, Nigeria’s stability and progress has implications for Africa and the international community. The country’s most recent presidential election held on April 16, 2011 was the most credible and fair poll Nigeria has seen for some time but Nigeria’s potential for increased political and economic stability is being threatened by the growth of radical Islamist militant group Boko Haram.

A Growing Concern: Boko Haram has evolved from a small, idiosyncratic entity to one that has gained not insignificant momentum, expanding its geographical range and operational capabilities while mastering the tactics of asymmetric warfare. In recent months, the group has launched a series of attacks outside of its traditional northeast base in an effort to foment sectarian violence in Nigeria targeting government and religious institutions and incite a response from Christians in southern Nigeria . Moreover, Boko Haram’s current reach into neighboring Cameroon, and its links with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Al-Shabaab in Somalia pose a greater challenge to the international community. Foreign actors who tried for years yet failed to manipulate tensions in Nigeria to their benefit are now finding in Boko Haram the opportunity to acquire a foothold in the country.

Sympathizers in the Government: Boko Haram would not have the longevity and success it has experienced without some sort of support from members of the elite, including those in state institutions. The Nigerian government recently arrested a sitting federal legislator, Senator Ali Ndume, representative of the Borno State and a former Minority Whip in the House of Representatives, following allegations that he was one of the sponsors of Boko Haram. Even if state representatives are not directly engaged with the group, there is a possibility that they may support its agenda in order to manipulate political situations.

Threat to Foreign Investment: While violence is currently concentrated in northern Nigeria as well as several of the states of Nigeria’s “middle belt,” this may not necessarily be the case in the future. Boko Haram has provoked sectarian counterstrikes from, among others, the Movement for the Liberation of the People of the Niger Delta (MLPND), a group known for its attacks on major oil installations and military bases. Additionally, the recent removal of fuel subsidies on refined petroleum has caused further protest and exacerbated instability. While the global media’s usual focus on conflict and poverty in Africa does not paint it as an attractive destination for foreign investment, the reality is that six of the ten countries featuring highest GDP growth by percentage during the first decade of the twenty-first century were in Africa. Africa is open for business.

Domestic and International Response: The Nigerian government has reacted robustly to the situation, President Goodluck Jonathan has declared a state of emergency in the North, calling the security situation a greater challenge than the 1967-1970 civil war due to the government’s inability to predict upcoming attacks. However, Nigeria cannot handle this alone, the US and international community must act accordingly, only a cohesive and integrated response with international partners is capable of stifling the threat before it poses a greater challenge to international stability.

The US can take action by raising awareness on this issue and devoting more resources to intelligence gathering activities in the region. The House Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence released a bipartisan report in 2011 on Boko Haram, and General Carter Ham, commander of the US Africa Command, has been very forward in promoting the issue. In September 2010, General Ham said that three African terrorist organizations –Al-Shabaab, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, And Boko Haram — “have very explicitly and publicly voiced an intent to target Westerners, and the U.S. specifically.” General Ham said that he was particularly worried about “the voiced intent of the three organizations to more closely collaborate and synchronize their efforts,” and stated that he thinks “it would be the most dangerous thing to happen not only to the Africans, but to us as well.”

The threat is very real, but the only realistic response is one which not only has the knowledge of the nature of the challenge, but also the wisdom to weigh carefully proportionate responses.

Press Coverage

Related Experts: J. Peter Pham and Damon Wilson