When the bizarre disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 captured the global imagination like episodes of “Lost,” an international military search and rescue response was swift. Two months and a dying black box ping later, no expense has been spared in the effort to find 240 passengers now presumed dead.
Weeks going on a month after the horrific mass kidnapping of 275 Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram militants, the milquetoast worldwide response can’t get much past the news ticker. While the reactions range from Twitter feeds accompanied by BringOurGirlsBack to bubbling hate for the perpetrators, the perceived inability of Nigerian armed forces to match the passion comes at a time when conflict in the country’s north is turning a grisly corner.
The tragic kidnappings have put a renewed spotlight on Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan. Nigeria’s leadership finds itself in a tough spot, not at all helped by authorities who seem powerless since Jonathan imposed states of emergency over the northeastern states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa.
Nigeria is now Africa’s largest economy, with gross domestic product rising from $263 billion in 2012 to an impressive $510 billion in 2013 that’s quickly surpassed longtime continental leader South Africa. But the oil-rich economic superstar can’t even provide ample security for its population of 175 million, much less offer confidence to the rest of the world that Africa’s largest oil producer can protect its biggest commodity.
“The Nigerian authorities have wasted three weeks apparently doing very little to get these schoolgirls released,” said Richard Downie, deputy director and fellow for the Center for Strategic and International Studies Africa Program, adding that “the captives could be anywhere by now.”
Downie, a critic of Jonathan’s response to the kidnappings, says that if authorities want to find the girls, they will require help from local communities in the Northeast, the area most affected by Boko Haram.
“Individuals within those communities may have the intelligence that will help the Nigerian military find the kidnappers,” he says. “Instead of further alienating them, the government should be talking to them, reaching out to them, and showing that its No. 1 priority is to rescue these girls.”
It’s not as if Nigeria’s military is ill-equipped to handle security: Its armed forces are among the largest on the continent, at 500,000 active-duty and paramilitary personnel combined. Its defense budget is nearly 2 percent of GDP, and it enjoys one of the more modern weapons arsenals in all of Africa. Still, that’s not translating into Boko Haram’s destruction.
The problem raises questions from both experts and human rights activists about why Nigeria, the world’s fourth leading exporter of liquefied natural gas, appears to go it alone on security. Renewed calls for U.S. military assistance abound as terrorism in the country’s majority Muslim North spins out of control. To observers, it’s a no-brainer: With the mostly Christian schoolgirls’ whereabouts certain to be in neighboring Cameroon and nearby Chad, repatriation of the girls should be no harder than simply repositioning U.S. intelligence satellites on the landscape while landing in well-armed commando teams.
“The kidnapping of hundreds of children by Boko Haram is an unconscionable crime,” said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, under enormous pressure to make commitments during a May 3 news conference at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. “We will do everything possible to support the Nigerian government to return these young women to their homes and hold the perpetrators to justice.”
Yet beyond recent check-ins by phone with President Barack Obama, Jonathan shows no public appetite for a partnership with the Americans — despite the heavy footprint of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) and the recent insertion of U.S. Special Forces troops in East Africa to capture warlord Joseph Kony.
In fact, the U.S. military presence in Africa is much larger than it seems, with observers pointing not only to AFRICOM as an office but also to the increased growth of forward operating bases, cooperative security sites and contingency locations peppered throughout the continent.
But in the case of Nigeria, it won’t be that simple. There’s much more complexity to a possible U.S.-Nigerian military collaboration. The Jonathan administration worries that the known presence of American military assets and personnel could trigger an emboldened response from Boko Haram, with the move potentially striking a bad chord with northern Nigeria’s largely Muslim population.
“Unfortunately, (it’s also) sovereignty. Nigeria has to invite that type of help onto their soil,” explains political economist Alton Drew. “They won’t.”
The risk is in validating the loosely al-Qaida-affiliated group should AFRICOM get involved. Obama administration officials, along with Jonathan, recognize the situation in Nigeria as being so fluid and fragile that greater U.S. involvement could spark a new regional war pitting Western interests against African-based Islamists.
To a degree, AFRICOM is already engaging Boko Haram, with U.S. forces deploying advanced drones based in neighboring Niger to track the terrorist group’s activities. And the State Department took steps in November to officially designate Boko Haram as a terrorist organization, giving the Obama administration legal authority to seize its assets in an attempt to choke its financial networks.
“The U.S. could help Nigeria improve its counterterrorism capability, from beefing up border security to improving coordination between Nigeria’s security agencies,” adds Downie. “But they are long-term fixes and will not help to resolve the immediate crisis.”
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and frequent contributor to The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine. The Root is a daily online magazine published by The Slate Group, a division of the Washington Post Co.