International experts discuss origins of Boko Haram, solutions to conflict

Dr. Iyabo Obasanjo, the former Senator and State Commissioner of Health for Nigeria, speaks during the Understanding Boko Haram panel in ASEAN Auditorium on March 10. Nicholas Pfosi / The Tufts Daily

A panel of four international experts on Nigerian politics and military discussed the merits of current and proposed international responses to the ongoing atrocities committed by extremist group Boko Haram and others in northeast Nigeria and the surrounding region as part of “Understanding Boko Haram” in Cabot ASEAN Auditorium last night.

The panel, organized by The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy’s Humanitarian Action Society, Human Rights Project, Africana Club and Fletcher Students in Security, also discussed the origins and tactics of Boko Haram in light of current conditions in Nigeria and sub-Saharan Africa.

Stephanie Schmidt, a master’s student at the Fletcher School and chair of the Humanitarian Action Society, began the event by sharing a series of statistics describing the impact of Boko Haram’s atrocities. Boko Haram began in Nigeria in 2009 and has since killed over 10,000 people and displaced approximately 3.3 million Nigerians, Schmidt said. Last week, Boko Haram declared its allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Professor of Political Science Pearl Robinson, who has written about Nigeria and African politics in her past scholarly work, moderated the panel.

Adotei Akwei, the director of government relations for Amnesty International, attended the panel via Skype. He began by discussing Amnesty International’s approach to the violence in the region, noting that the Nigerian military has also caused its fair share of problems in the conflict.

Akwei stressed that in the last two years since the Nigerian government issued a state of emergency for the northeast region of the country, Boko Haram has focused its attacks less on institutions and the government and more on targeting civilians. He added that Boko Haram’s confidence has increased with more brazen attacks on towns such as Baga, as the group counts on the Nigerian military’s inability to respond effectively.

Darren Kew (F ’02), a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston and the executive director of the Center for Peace, Democracy and Development, also discussed the military’s ineffectiveness in combating Boko Haram.

“The military itself is an extraordinarily overstretched institution,” Kew said.

He added that Boko Haram also benefits from connections to local and regional governments in Nigeria, where it has bargaining power with local leaders.

Boko Haram has always been deeply connected politically in northeastern Nigeria,” he said.

Former Nigerian Senator and State Commissioner of Health Iyabo Obasanjo noted that Nigeria’s northeast has historically been much less developed than the rest of the country, a disparity dating back to before Nigerian independence.

“The northeast has all the worst indicators,” she said.

Obasanjo added that the 2009 killing of Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf brought national attention to what had been a small regional group, and that it is increasingly difficult for the Nigerian government to negotiate with Boko Haram after Yusuf’s death since the group now lacks a clear leader.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria Walter C. Carrington discussed the United States‘ reluctance to engage with the Nigerian government to combat Boko Haram.

“The Obama administration has had a lot of hesitation about the way it ought to be dealing with Nigeria,” Carrington said. “Both sides have become more and more weary of the other.”

Carrington noted that the Leahy amendment, which prevents the United States from supplying military assistance to foreign militaries that have seriously violated human rights, hinders the extent to which the United States can be directly involved with the Nigerian military.

So far, Carrington said, the United States has largely supported external military forces from other African countries — most notably Chad — in an effort to close Nigeria’s northeast borders and prevent Boko Haram’s influence from spreading. However, Akwei noted that Chad’s forces also have a poor human rights record.

Several panelists addressed the lack of trust in Nigeria’s political system as a barrier to an effective response against Boko Haram. Obasanjo noted that it will take several rounds of elections to build trust between the Nigerian people and the government.

Nigerians have very little trust of their government,” Obasanjo said. “The people themselves do not see the government as theirs.”

The Nigerian military and police’s own human rights abuses have also contributed to these institutions’ struggle to promote stability, according to multiple panelists. However, reform of these institutions cannot begin solely in the north, as their problems are endemic to the entire country, Obasanjo said.

“How do you help a system where its security administration has fallen apart?” she asked.

Kew stressed the importance of securing Nigeria’s northeastern borders in order to restrict the group’s access to finances and weapons. He argued that regional peacekeeping forces would be most effective in achieving this goal, though he concluded, “ultimately this is a Nigerian problem.”

Obasanjo emphasized that the majority of people who have died in this conflict are Muslim, and that most of the vigilante groups that have had some success in pushing back against Boko Haram are also Muslim.

In the panel’s final half hour, audience members were able to ask the panelists questions. One audience member asked about Boko Haram’s recorded use of girls as suicide bombers in town markets and public areas.

Kew said he believed that most of these girls either did not know what they were doing or were intimidated into wearing bombs, though some girls may have detonated the bombs willingly.

Obasanjo cited the confirmed story of a girl whose father “donated” her to Boko Haram for use as a suicide bomber, though the girl refused to detonate her bomb. She connected this story to broader problems of gender-based violence and a lack of support for women in the region.

“The only thing that can help is education, and this is the big thing that Boko Haram is working to stop,” she said.

Both Kew and Carrington stressed that Boko Haram has little support from civilians in the areas in which it operates. Carrington, in response to a question about Boko Haram’s recent declaration of allegiance to ISIS, noted that Boko Haram has much less civilian support than ISIS has.

Obasanjo argued that the Nigerian government would be more effective in combating Boko Haram if its president had military experience, though she noted that Nigerians have been wary of government officials with military connections in the past.

“The military is no less corrupt [than the government], but it is much more disciplined,” she said.

Obasanjo reiterated this assertion in her closing statement, adding that the military should be given human rights training. Carrington, however, questioned whether such training would be effective in changing the military’s behavior.

Akwei concluded that in order for Nigeria to combat Boko Haram effectively, international voices should push the Nigerian military to be professional in its operations.

“We need to do more than giving people guns and bullets,” Akwei said.