Friday, December 19, 2014

Chibok Redux: Mass kidnappings in Gumsuri, Nigeria

Last Sunday, Boko Haram militants raided the town of Gumsuri in the northern Nigerian state of Borno.  Over 30 villagers were killed, while approximate 185 were kidnapped.  This comes less than a year after over 200 girls were kidnapped from a school in the nearby town of Chibok.  Nothing is known about the condition of those who were taken, and Boko Haram has not yet released any official statements.  News of the raid did not reach the media until Thursday, when the first survivors arrived from Gumsuri in Maiduguri, which is both the birthplace of Boko Haram and the epicenter of many of its activities.

Despite its powerful military and large economy, Nigeria has struggled for years to counter the Boko Haram insurgency in its northern, majority Muslim areas, especially Borno.  Many analysts have blamed the insurgency on poor education and social services in the area, combined with a lack of economic opportunities.  These conditions have proven to be fertile ground for Islamic militants, who are able to recruit successfully among the disaffected youth.

As noted above, this is the second mass kidnapping by Boko Haram forces in 2014.  Previously, Boko Haram have focused on killing rather than capturing their victims, with a special emphasis on bombings but also gun attacks and military-style coordinated assaults.  These have evolved from the early days of drive-by grenade tossings (usually from a motorcycle) to more complex operations in which hundreds have been killed, and major military installations have been attacked in coordinated assaults, although most of these have been conducted rather clumsily.

The Gumsuri and Chibok kidnappings may indicate that Boko Haram is evolving towards a more internationalist agenda.  Previously, the group has focused on domestic issues in Nigera.  Its objectives have been to suppress Western education which it deems to be anathema to Islam (Boko is the Hausa word for Western, i.e. non-Islamic, education while Haram is the Arabic word for sinful, shameful, or forbidden), promote Islamic law in northern Nigeria, and establish a Caliphate in Borno and neighboring regions.

Now, it seems Boko Haram may be responding to the success of the Daesh (aka Islamic State etc) in Syria and Iraq by increasing its engagement in attacks which draw attention in the Western media.  Boko Haram does not have nearly the social media presence that Daesh does, and relies primarily on local rather than foreign fighters, but given the media attention received by the Chibok girls, it seems plausible that Boko Haram may be attempting to raise its international profile.  There are several potential incentives for this, including attracting some of the foreign money and fighters who have bolstered the Daesh, antagonizing the West for its own sake, and gaining additional support among Islamists in Nigeria.  Considering that Nigeria is significantly less connected than most MENA states, however, and that most of Boko Haram's objectives are local, attracting monetary support may be the most likely motivation.

While it's too soon to make any concrete judgements, I suspect that Nigeria's response to this attack will be characteristically anemic.  The Nigerian military, which on paper is one of the most powerful in Africa and has been the cornerstone of a number of attempts by Nigeria to assert itself as a regional power, has been particularly criticized for its failure to mount a meaningful response to Boko Haram.  While there is a support role for international forces including the US military to play in fighting Boko Haram, any attempt to suppress the organization must be centered around an increased willingness by the Nigerian military to devote significant resources and effort to fighting them.  This has been notoriously lacking, however, and there is no indication that the Nigerian state will react more forcefully to this most recent atrocity.

This lack of will by the state is likely to be exacerbated by declining capability.  Declining oil prices may play to the US's favor in dealings with Russia and Iran, but Nigeria receives approximately 70% of government revenue from oil sales. Overall revenues will have fallen by at least 30% by the end of 2014, leading to decreased funding for both the military and social spending.  Given that any attempt to address the baseline social and economic issues around which Boko Haram coalesced will require increased rather than decreased development funding by the state, the declining price of oil will likely delay meaningful attempts to combat Boko Haram by years.

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