Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has switched tack from saying his government is winning the war against the Islamist group Boko Haram to describing it as an expanding al-Qaeda-backed threat to Africa.
The change came after his administration drew criticism over its handling of the April 14 kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls by Boko Haram that highlighted his army’s failure to defeat militants who’ve killed thousands of people in their five-year insurgency. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo said Jonathan, who waited almost three weeks before speaking publicly about the abductions, didn’t act fast enough to free them.
“We know that Boko Haram has trained with al-Qaeda, but it’s not the case that al-Qaeda has come to adopt them,” Idayat Hassan, director of the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy and Development research group, said by phone from the Nigerian capital. “In the attempt to create the issue as an African phenomenon, he is targeting an international audience.”
Until the kidnapping, the Jonathan government said the military’s pounding of Boko Haram hideouts in the northeast of Africa’s biggest oil exporter had the group on the run. Now countries including the U.S. and the U.K. are aiding the hunt for the girls, while at a Paris conference on May 17, Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger agreed to set up a joint force to patrol the border areas.
“Jonathan wants to showcase the might of Nigeria, that it can handle this situation,” Habu Mohammed, a professor of political science at Bayero University in the northern city of Kano, said in a phone interview. “The situation is beyond the control of Nigeria.”
In a May 29 broadcast to mark the 15th anniversary of the end of military rule, Jonathan likened the Boko Haram insurgency to the “same warped and ferocious world view that brought down the Twin Towers in New York, killed innocent persons in Boston and led to the murder of defenseless people in the southern Russian city of Volgograd.”
“A war has been unleashed on us,” he said. “Extremist foreign elements, collaborating with some of our misguided citizens, are focused on an attempt to bring down our country and the democracy and freedom we cherish and celebrate today.”
Jonathan, 56, hasn’t said if he will run in a presidential election scheduled for February.
Osama bin Laden issued two audio messages between 2000 and 2002 urging Nigerian Muslims to wage jihad and establish an Islamic state, according to the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
It wasn’t until 2009, when the then leader of Boko Haram, Mohammed Yusuf, died in police custody that the group launched its full-scale insurgency, mainly in northeastern Nigeria.
Most analysts and allied governments believe Boko Haram remains a domestic problem, unlike other African militant groups such as Somalia’s al-Shabaab, which has attacked Kenya and Uganda, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
“In this day and age there is probably no terror group that does not have some links somehow, even if tenuous, to some other organization,” U.S. Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman told reporters at the Paris meeting. “But for the most part, we treat Boko Haram as its own terror organization.”
There’s been widespread criticism of the Jonathan administration’s handling of the insurgency, from local observers to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and international rights groups, who’ve accused the army of committing extensive abuses against civilians.
As “the commander-in-chief, the ultimate responsibility lies with him, and none of the strategies has worked,” Hassan said. “Counter-insurgency has not worked, and there has not been the political will to explore dialog.”
Abubakar Shekau, the current leader of Boko Haram, which means “western education is a sin” in the Hausa language, now says he is “fighting the world.”
In a video message released after the schoolgirl kidnappings, he taunted Barack Obama and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as well as Jonathan.
The vast majority of people Boko Haram has killed have been Nigerian villagers eking out a living in the country’s majority-Muslim northeast, far from the business offices of Lagos or the coastal oil wells that finance the Nigerian state.
The group’s main attack against an international target in Nigeria was the 2011 bombing of the United Nations building in Abuja that killed 23 people.
The day the schoolgirls were kidnapped, Boko Haram carried out the worst-ever bombing in Abuja, killing at least 75 people.
“Nigeria is not really a theater of global jihad at the moment, it is largely a local issue,” Raffaello Pantucci, senior research fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, said in an e-mailed response to questions.
The U.S. State Department, which is offering a $7 million reward for information that leads to Shekau’s location, acknowledges some links between Boko Haram and other militant groups.
Its Rewards for Justice website cites “reported communications, training, and weapons links” between Boko Haram, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, “which may strengthen Boko Haram’s capacity to conduct terrorist attacks.”
For now, security analysts say Boko Haram’s operations remain predominantly local.
“People can gain publicity by aligning themselves with various organizations,” Simon Fordham, a partner at security consultancy BGN Risk and a retired British army colonel, said by phone from London. “But any affiliation needs to be put in suitable context, which is that it is a localized group in an area covering three northern states that is difficult for the authorities to police.”
Boko Haram fighters attacked three mainly Christian villages in the Gwoza district of Borno state late yesterday, shooting people, burning buildings and “killing scores,” Peter Biye, a lawmaker representing the area in the House of Representatives, said today by phone from Maiduguri. It was a reprisal for an ambush by a local militia on June 1 in which 37 Islamists were killed.