- - Wednesday, May 21, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Once again the global spotlight shines on an al Qaeda-inspired attack in Africa. This time it involves the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls from a Christian enclave in northern Nigeria by a band of Boko Haram jihadists who threaten to sell them as slaves or to use them for ransom. It evoked global outrage, but it is only one in a series of violent events in this tinderbox nation, where slavery and piracy still exist.

The kidnapping prompted the United States, Great Britain, France, Nigeria and others to meet recently in Paris for a “Security in Nigeria Summit,” where participants agreed on measures intended to tame the terrorist group and bring about the safe return of the victims. If not properly managed, the situation could easily turn into another Libyan-type calamity.

Boko Haram (aka Nigerian Taliban) is a violent Sunni Muslim extremist group with ties to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. It mostly operates in the predominantly Muslim northern part of the country. The U.S. State Department estimates its numbers at a few thousand. Its prime goals include the establishment of an Islamic state and dispensing punishment to those who seek a non-Muslim education. The group uses violence to impose Shariah law on the population and is responsible for thousands of killings.

Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan (a Christian who succeeded a Muslim as president), stated that Boko Haram members and sympathizers have infiltrated the government, military and Cabinet. He’s likely right, since half of Nigeria’s 177 million people (about 88.5 million, making it Africa’s most Muslim-populated country) claim Islam as their faith.

The international focus on the recent schoolgirl kidnapping masks some of Nigeria’s other enormous problems. The U.S. State Department’s 2013 human-trafficking report reveals Nigeria is still a source, transit and destination country for modern-day slavery. Its genesis is traceable to more than 1,000 years ago, when Islam spread into the region and Muslim profiteers began shipping indigenous Africans to trans-Sahara slave markets.

In 2013, Nigeria surpassed Somalia as the most active place for pirates, with attacks on oil rigs, cargo ships and fishing boats for ransom soaring largely because the international community focused more on Somali pirates, and also because Nigeria’s navy and its maritime police are too weak to protect offshore waters.

Despite its status as Africa’s largest economy, the average annual income of Nigerians is only $2,800, with nearly 70 percent of the population subsisting on little more than $1 per day; only 61 percent of the population can read and write, with disproportionately far more illiterate women than men. Nigerians have a collective average life span of only 53 years.

Nigerian Muslims, like others who practice their religion, believe the prime basis of governance and administration of justice should be Shariah law as enunciated in the Koran and the traditions of Muhammad and further elaborated by classical Muslim legists. However, Shariah totally subordinates women and mandates many other human rights violations, such as relegating non-Muslim minorities to a much lower legal status than Muslims and dispensing cruel and unusual punishment. It also rejects freedom of speech and conscience, and mandates aggressive jihad until the country and, eventually, the world is brought under Islamic hegemony.

Many Nigerian Muslims perceive that Christians, making up 40 percent of the population (and, at 71 million, the largest concentration of Christians in Africa), are treated better by the government.

Many Nigerians think that the United States (their nation’s largest trading partner) is driven more by its desire to protect Africa’s largest oil producer than by a desire to help its citizens.

The aforementioned provides a glimpse into the environment where Boko Haram gestated and flourishes. The issue at hand is what the United States and its allies should do.

The Obama administration placed bounties on three of Boko Haram’s leaders and designated the group a foreign terrorist organization prior to the abduction. Afterward, it sent a small group of military, intelligence and law enforcement officials, along with manned and unmanned aircraft, to advise and assist in Nigeria’s rescue operation. First lady Michelle Obama joined a high-profile public awareness campaign on Twitter, calling on the terrorists to release the schoolgirls. None of the U.S. actions has caused Boko Haram to modify its terrorist behavior.

Given the circumstances, the best course of action for the United States and its allies is to limit the scope of their involvement in Nigeria to advising and assisting the government to locate and rescue the kidnapped schoolgirls. Nigeria’s deep-rooted internal problems, which threaten regional security, are best left to the Nigerians, the Economic Community of West African States, the African Union and the United Nations to resolve.

Fred Gedrich served in the U.S. departments of State and Defense and has traveled extensively in Africa.

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