During Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s first official trip to sub-Saharan Africa last week, he had the opportunity to publicly bolster a key U.S. ally. Instead, he singled out Nigeria for criticism at the very time the country is engaged in a pitched battle to defend itself against radical Islamic terrorists who have pledged to overthrow the government and replace it with an Islamic state.
It was a puzzling choice by the U.S., coming at the very moment that Nigeria is reporting major progress in combating the group Boko Haram. Nigeria has deployed 2,000 soldiers to its northern regions to destroy well-equipped terrorist training camps utilized by these Islamists. Public chiding is not what Nigeria needs. It doesn’t help Nigeria in its fight and ultimately does not best serve American interests.
Nigeria is presently at war and on the other side are terrorists who may be receiving help from al Qaeda and al Qaeda-linked fighters. Nigeria’s goal is to retain its grip on three northern states, preventing Boko Haram from solidifying its grip on the region and fundamentally destabilizing Nigeria.
The very name Boko Haram tells us what we need to know about the group — it translates to “Western education is forbidden.” The group began launching its terrorist strikes in Nigeria in 2009 and has continued since then. The Associated Press estimates that Boko Haram has killed more than 1,600 people since 2009, and thousands more Nigerians have been wounded.
The group has specifically targeted the country’s Christians, including suicide bombings inside churches. In recent months, it has fulfilled a pledge to target Nigerian women and children by taking them hostage.
Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Muhammad Shekau has modeled himself on Osama bin Laden, living in hiding while periodically circulating videos released to the media which show him against a backdrop of guns delivering harsh threats and preaching jihad.
Shortly after Boko Haram executed its most deadly attack to date by killing at least 180 people in a suicide bombing in northern Nigeria’s largest city, Shekau appeared in a video stating: “I enjoy killing anyone that God commands me to kill — the way I enjoy killing chickens and rams.”
Today, Boko Haram’s Islamic fighters are reportedly using anti-aircraft guns mounted on trucks to fight the Nigerian soldiers attempting to rein in the group.
America should be more sensitive to fact that Nigeria feels that unprecedented firepower is required to protect itself and to prevent the country from being overrun by radical Islamists. We ourselves have spent more than a decade in large-scale wars overseas to disrupt terrorist networks and overwhelm regimes that harbored groups that threaten our national security.
The U.S. has a vital strategic interest in ensuring that al Qaeda cannot establish strong footholds in Africa, establishing bases of operation that, while they may target mostly Africans in the short term, will eventually seek to harm us in the long run too.
Given the strategic implications of the fight now underway in Nigeria, the U.S. should be looking for additional ways to assist, as opposed to publicly chiding the government there. America is correct to want human rights respected even as fighting continues, but many legitimate questions can be raised as to whether we have done the same in battle when our soldiers and our citizens have been the ones under fire.
Regardless, any concerns America may have about Nigeria would be better hashed out among the allies in private. Instead of making critical statements in the presence of journalists, whose reports then filter out with rapid speed all across the globe and become unhelpful headlines, we should look to influence Nigeria’s behavior through building trust and credibility. Ironically, that is the same recipe for success that America is recommending to the leadership in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, as it confronts the challenges of succeeding on the battlefield against terrorists while simultaneously winning over hearts and minds.
In private, we should be frank with our allies about what we expect, but when we embarrass them publicly we work against our own interests by emboldening the terrorists. Rather than leading Boko Haram to question the degree to which America stands with Nigeria, we should be sending the strong message that Nigeria’s war on terrorism is supported by the greatest military power on the planet.
Nigeria is fighting an existential battle to keep its nation intact and to combat the same twisted and radical Islamist terrorism which has targeted the United States and continues to threaten our national security. America should give Nigeria all the help it can.