U.S. Says Buhari on Right Track in Battle Against Boko Haram

  • Buhari focusing on poverty, fighting corruption, U.S. Says
  • Army alone won't beat militants, U.S. defense official says

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s focus on combining a military offensive with the fight against poverty and corruption is the right approach in the battle against the Islamist militant group, Boko Haram, a senior U.S. defense official said.

“They understand military pressure by itself will not tackle the overall problem and understand the need for a truly integrated approach,” U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs Amanda J. Dory said in an interview at the Pentagon in Washington. “This is something the previous Nigerian government said, and had strategy documents to articulate such an approach, but they weren’t actually implementing.”

Muhammadu Buhari
Muhammadu Buhari
Photographer: Mujahid Safodien/AFP/Getty Image

Buhari beat President Goodluck Jonathan in elections this year after a campaign in which he pledged to end the threat of the insurgents who are trying to carve out an Islamic state in Africa’s biggest economy. He also promised to fight graft and narrow the gap between rich and poor.

The violence, mainly centered in Boko Haram’s stronghold of northeastern Nigeria, has killed thousands of civilians and displaced more than a million since 2009, stunting economic development in one of the country’s poorest regions and forcing schools and markets to close. The insurgency captured international attention in April 2014 when the militants kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls in the town of Chibok, sparking a social media campaign known as #BringBackOurGirls for their return home. Most remain missing.

U.S. Military

The U.S. announced last month it’s sending as many as 300 non-combat troops to neighboring Cameroon to bolster a regional force that’s fighting Boko Haram, including its intelligence-gathering activities.

MAP: Nigeria & Neighbors
MAP: Nigeria & Neighbors

Almost six months into his term, Buhari has relocated the army’s headquarters from Abuja to Maiduguri, the epicenter of the insurgency, replaced his top military chiefs and vowed to recover billions of dollars stolen in corruption scandals. Still, his plan to bring change risks being undermined by an economic slump from the low price of oil, the country’s main revenue earner.

“The application of military pressure does not address any of the so-called underlying grievances in an enduring way,” said Dory, who has met Buhari twice since he took office in May. The president visited Washington in July and she was in Nigeria last month.

Multinational Force

The conflict has spilled across the borders, spurring neighboring Cameroon, Chad and Niger to join a multinational force to battle the militants. The coalition has helped dislodge rebels from some of their positions, although bombings in towns and cities continue.

While Boko Haram has pledged allegiance to Islamic State, which rules a self-declared caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq, the U.S. views it as a predominately symbolic gesture, and there’s “limited evidence” to suggest they are actively cooperating, Dory said.

“This type of marriage of convenience is emerging in different contexts, but various strands of extremist organizations in Africa aren’t gathering into any type of coherent mass that is operating for the same purpose,” she said.

Tracking Kony

In central Africa, the U.S. in October extended for another year a mission that began in 2011 to help fight against the renegade Lord’s Resistance Army and its leader Joseph Kony. As the group has lost support and is down to about 150 fighters, from as many as 1,000 a few years ago, it’s been able to finance itself through the illegal wildlife trade, in a worrying new trend contributing to the slaughter of elephants, said Dory.

The LRA was founded in the 1980s by Ugandan Kony, a former altar boy who says the group is inspired by Christianity’s 10 commandments and is now wanted by The Hague-based International Criminal Court on war crimes. After being pushed out of Uganda a decade ago, the group, which is accused of mutilation and turning children into sex slaves, is mainly active in Central African Republic, South Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo.

“I think we are closer collectively than we’ve ever been” to finding Kony, said Dory. “The numbers have decreased, the impact on the civilian population has decreased, the geographic reach of the LRA has decreased tremendously.”

The mission to track down Kony, led by African forces, is complicated by the fact the rebel leader is believed to be hiding in Sudanese-controlled territory and his fighters are traveling in small groups, some in dense tree-covered terrain, said Sasha Lezhnev, associate director of policy at the Washington-based Enough Project, an advocacy group.

“With the LRA, the danger is if you don’t finish the job, they have the formula for harsh discipline, abducting and spreading fear,” Lezhnev said in a phone interview. “With access to natural resources now, if the U.S. were to pull out tomorrow Kony would have an abduction spree to find more fighters.”

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