Africa has been in the news for much of the past couple of weeks because of the kidnapping of a group of students in Nigeria by Boko Haram, a militant fundamentalist group which shares with fellow religious fundamentalists around the world dissatisfaction with many of the elements of modern life. However, Boko Haram goes farther than most, having embraced a campaign of terror directed at both civilians and government personnel across the country from its base in the north.
The group has been buoyed by historic divisions between north and south, religious and cultural divides, and the failure of the Nigerian government to deliver on its promises to beleaguered citizens even as the country’s wealth is sucked out of southern oilfields by multinationals that employ private armies to protect their oceanic oil platforms.
But if the violence that Boko Haram is unleashing on Nigeria is partially a result of the government’s failure to tame corruption and use a redistribution of wealth to head off fundamentalism, it also exposes the lack of trust that Nigerian citizens have in their state. It is arguably the case that the government’s response to Boko Haram has been hamstrung by the lack of trust in the military, an institution with a history of meddling in the country’s politics, which have suffered from a number of coups, as well as a cataclysmic civil war, since independence.
The government’s response to Boko Haram’s attacks on schools (which per its name it sees as egregious examples of “Westernisation” and modernity) has been anemic, ineffective, or nonexistent, depending on who you ask. International social media campaigns and a vocal Nigerian civil society have put increasing pressure on the government to act.
But there are reasons to beware of the action which could result from this pressure from citizens to do something—anything—to combat the group which is striking at the country’s youth with seeming impunity in places—schools—where they should be safe.
Earlier today in Kenya, what police are calling IED’s exploded in Nairobi, killing around 12 people and injuring scores more. For several years now Kenya’s cities have been increasingly besieged by Al Shabaab (presumed to be responsible for the latest bombing), a group affiliated with Al Qaeda that operates in the Horn of Africa and south. Its power in Somalia was shaken when in 2011 the Kenyan government launched Operation Linda Nchi, an effort to secure its northern borders which took the form of its military crossing the border to engage Al Shabaab in Somalia.
Kenya was joined by Ethiopia, and received assistance from the United States. The firepower the two countries brought to bear was much greater than anything Al Shabaab could muster. But even as the formal operation wound down and the Kenyan forces were folded under the command of an African Union mission, the weakness of their position was exposed.
Not only was the Kenyan military accused by Somalis of abuse and atrocities, but Al Shabaab took the fight to Kenya’s cities, with bombs and grenade attacks in cities in the north, Nairobi, and the coast. Those attacks have become increasingly regular, and are shaking Kenya’s civil society to its core. In my visits over the past several years, Nairobi is increasingly on edge, with ever more security measures in place. The attack on the Westgate Mall in an affluent neighbourhood drew international attention to a terror campaign that had been going on for a couple of years by that point.
But it is not just Kenyans’ sense of security which has been threatened by the impunity with which Al Shabaab seems to operate. Their sense of community is equally fragile. There are many Somalis living in Kenya—some for generations—and this community has become the focus of security efforts, which typically come in the form of massive sweeps through Somali neighbourhoods after each bombing.
The profiling, the sweeps, and the harrowing interrogations which follow are splitting Kenya and are at odds with the language of unity deployed by the government. But the security measures which seem so repressive to Kenyan Somalis stem from the demand by Kenya’s citizenry that the government take some kind of action to reduce the sense of insecurity that Al Shabaab has created.
I would argue that the Kenyan security services are in danger of becoming Al Shabaab’s best recruitment tool as their measures create the very divisions that the group describes as existing in Kenyan society as a subsidiary gripe to its promotion of fundamentalism (the organisations name invokes “the youth”, the demographic group already most marginalized within both Kenya and Nigeria). As the United States has always found, meeting terror with terror can legitimate the very organization whose goals a state power seeks to defeat.
If Nigeria follows Kenya’s lead in using massive military force, and with targeting entire communities, it will be in danger of facing an even more deadly threat to its abilities not only to maintain order, but to even maintain a sense that “Nigeria” is a worthwhile civic project for its citizens.
The United States faces its own challenges in responding to these events in Africa. On the one hand, the urgency of the situation in Nigeria, in which schoolchildren effectively become hostages within their own country, seems to demand action. On the other, a foreign military presence, however small, could prove inflammatory and counterproductive.
There is also the temptation for the United States to absorb groups like Boko Haram and Al Shabaab into the global War of Terror it wages with more violence than thought (and Al Shabaab is already a target of U.S. military operations). Some in the U.S. government have claimed that the two groups are seeking to merge, by way of advocating for a stronger military response.
The claim has been countered by others who contend that the aims of both groups remain essentially local, and that the best way to create a real threat to the United States, and to link the two would be to take military action on the false-supposition that they are part of a wider conspiracy against the United States. This is a view to which I would hope that most people are receptive after we saw what happened when we acted on the Bush administration’s lies equating Al Qaeda with the Saddam Hussein regime, with the result that our own military intervention transplanted Al Qaeda to Iraq.
The governments of both Nigeria and Kenya face an unenviable position. Certain security measures are clearly in order in the short term to protect their countries’ citizens. But the line between proportionate and effective action, and action which could create a crisis of greater and more serious proportions is one which is easy to cross, particularly when a panicky government is being egged on by a xenophobic or irate citizenry.
The root causes of both insurgencies are social, cultural, and economic, and the solutions will ultimately have to be of the same character. But because any solutions will take time both to reason out no less implement, the Kenyan and Nigerian governments are forced to deal with questions not only of proportion, but of time, and must balance these against one another.
My own hope is that those governments can learn from one another’s experiences and those of other nations and resist the temptation to meet violent force with their own indiscriminate force in a way which will fracture their national communities. But this will necessitate much introspection not only on the part of authorities, but of citizens and communities in both countries.