Imperialism and Nigerian Schoolgirls

It took awhile to find the Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by the radical Islamist group Boko Haram, and during that time officials from Western governments – likely the United States, Britain, and France – anonymously criticized the Nigerian government for being slow to accept foreign help and then being slothful and incompetent in the search. These Western governments are under tremendous pressure at home to show that they are "doing something" about the schoolgirls. That’s because, despite Boko Haram’s even more monstrous prior acts – for example, slaughtering entire villages and shooting and burning to death 59 school boys – the admittedly shocking kidnapping of the schoolgirls (they have not been killed) became the cause célèbre of women’s groups and women politicians in the West, who in turn exerted tremendous pressure on their governments to find the girls.

However, all of this Western interest and pressure about Boko Haram, when little existed before the mass kidnapping, does seem a little imperial and seems to smack of domestic politicians and groups making hay off a crisis in a foreign country. After all, although Boko Haram is one of the most heinous terrorist groups on the planet, it is a local group with local grievances and is no threat to U.S. security. The Nigerian government is obviously scared that high profile Western assistance to help with the schoolgirls and to provide the Nigerian military with counterterrorism training will raise the group’s profile and allow it to attract more fighters and funding to battle "Western imperialism."

Given the Western record of fighting terrorism in Africa, the Nigerian government’s may be well grounded. For example, the American government has also stepped up counterterrorism training and assistance to Niger, Mauritania, Libya, and Mali. It has also backed proxy fighters in Somalia. This is the Obama administration’s version of the Nixon Doctrine of the early 1970s, when a similarly war weary America decided to train foreign militaries to carry out its will rather than send US forces.

Some of these US counterterrorism efforts in Africa have already been plagued by problems. In Mali, U.S.-trained commanders of elite army units defected to Islamist rebels, who took over the northern part of the country last year. Counterterrorism training hasn’t started yet because the Malian civilian government is still reeling from a military coup last year. After what happened with the elite commanders, maybe that is a good thing. Similarly counterproductive, the US training program in Libya ended disastrously, as US weapons and armored vehicles fell into the hands of a Libyan militia when it, likely tipped off by an insider within the Libyan military, stormed the lightly guarded warehouse and made off with the equipment.

Even worse, in Somalia, Libya, and Mali, US actions have created the terrorism threat or exacerbated an existing one. In Somalia, US support for corrupt warlords led to the rise of the Islamist group Shabab, which touted keeping order and clean government. In Libya, the West overthrew the only man capable of keeping together a country fractured along tribal lines – Muammar Gaddafi – thus creating the current situation of battling militias in what may shortly become an all-out civil war. Those militias are well armed from Gaddafi’s large weapon stockpiles, as were Islamist fighters that took over the northern part of Mali last year and required a French military intervention to only temporarily scatter them.

Thus, Western efforts to fight terrorism in Africa have generally been incompetent and counterproductive. So how can these governments lecture a local government in doing so, such as Nigeria in the schoolgirl kidnapping? Yet they continue to do so. The Nigerian government had apparently reached an agreement with Boko Haram to free the schoolgirls in exchange for releasing members of the group held by the government. However the agreement fell through just after Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan met with Western leaders, who don’t want such a deal. Thus, Western countries likely vetoed the agreement, and the Nigerian government backed out of it at the last minute. Apparently, Western governments don’t countenance negotiation with terrorists or ransoming hostages, except when they do – remember the Iran-Contra Affair in which arms were sold to Iran in an attempt to get US hostages out of Lebanon? And didn’t the United States just negotiate with the Taliban the release of five of the group’s senior leaders held in Guantanamo prison in exchange for a lone U.S. enlisted soldier?

Instead of stirring up more terrorism by elevating the reputation of local-oriented groups, for example Boko Haram, the West – and the United States in particular – should butt out of providing such counterterrorism "assistance."

Author: Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and author of Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.