It is safe to assume that the world reacting to news of Boko Haram’s latest abductions will be a somewhat disillusioned one. Such weariness is understandable, considering what has happened in the eight months since the abductions that first brought Boko Haram into the global spotlight.
First it took almost three weeks for the Nigerian President to address the country on the incident.
In September, “#BringBackGoodluck2015” banners appeared on the streets of the Nigerian capital, Abuja, ostensibly the work of supporters of the President, who had somehow assumed it would be a great idea to make political capital out of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign. It took a backlash to make the President’s spokesman put out a disclaimer.
And this week, just before the news of the latest kidnappings broke, a military court in Abuja convicted 54 Nigerian soldiers on charges of mutiny, and cowardice in the face of Boko Haram, and sentenced them to death: a symbolic victory for Boko Haram if ever there was one.
The icing on the cake was the news, in October, of a ceasefire with Boko Haram. Military units obeyed the prompting of their commanders. Boko Haram didn’t.
By the time it dawned on the world that the ceasefire was a ruse, Boko Haram had launched a devastatingly successful offensive, capturing several towns in Adamawa State, including the hometown of Nigeria’s most senior military officer, Chief of Defense Staff Alex Badeh, a man given to inopportunely boasting, of the impending end of Boko Haram.
Today, eight months after the abductions, none of the girls has been rescued. The handful of girls who escaped did so on their own, not because a band of special-forces soldiers set them free. ?And lest we forget, this week’s incident is not the first since April; Boko Haram has never once let up on its attacks on civilian targets.
Perhaps the most important lesson from the last eight months is this: that outrage, no matter how focused it is, or how much it trends on social media, is not what stops terrorists. Especially not groups like Boko Haram and ISIS, so steeped in brutality that even al Qaeda has been compelled to disavow them.
The outrage has its uses, no doubt. It can help jolt government out of its nonchalance, in the face of several distractions (like the general elections forthcoming in February, in which President Jonathan will be seeking a second and final term), and force it to pay attention to matters like equipping the military. At the beginning of December, Nigerian journalist Aliyu Tilde toured towns recently liberated from Boko Haram by Nigerian troops, and reported an upswing in morale on the part of the Nigerian military.
Outrage can also turn ordinary citizens into crusaders against poor governance, and make them more likely to exercise their voting rights in the quest for something more inspiring.
But only a demonstration of superior military force will make a lasting difference, and ensure that Boko Haram is reduced to a position in which it can no longer routinely carry out these kinds of attacks. Negotiations will be meaningless; Boko Haram under Abubakar Shekau has repeatedly insisted it will not negotiate with the government.
That superior force will be the result of a combination of factors.
Improved intelligence gathering is one. One defining characteristic of the Nigerian military’s moves has been its largely defensive nature. It has tended to stay one step behind Boko Haram; occupied mainly with fighting to capture towns seized by Boko Haram, instead of preventing Boko Haram from seizing the towns in the first place, or abducting civilians.
“If you don’t have good information you have nothing,” says Mohamed Kashkoush, a retired Egyptian Major General, now on the faculty of the Regional Center for Strategic Studies, in Cairo. “Good information makes you act in advance, not react.”
Training is another matter. The relatively higher rates of success Cameroon appears to be enjoying in its confrontations with Boko Haram may in part be due to the training its forces have received from abroad. It is not clear if any of the several offers of support that Nigeria received following the April abductions translated into action. Now would be a good time to revisit them.
The United States government can also play a role in re-engaging with Nigeria, regarding the sale of game-changing military hardware. In recent months the Nigerian government has expressed its frustration with the attitude of the Americans, who are wont to insist that they cannot supply arms to countries that violate human rights. (Puzzling when one considers the sort of regimes the U.S. routinely considers military allies). Human rights groups say the Nigerian military is a serial offender; the military continues to deny this.
While we wait for progress on these fronts, one thing is already clear. If the immediate reaction of the Nigerian government to this latest incident is anything to go by, no lessons have been learned from April. Several hours after the news broke, no word emerged; from the President or his office, or from the Defense Headquarters. This is probably going to be like April all over again.