13 Mar 2015

What Will Be Nigeria’s Fate In 2015? - by Dan O’Shea

While the world’s counter-terrorism focus remains on al-Qaeda’s attack on Paris and the enduring challenges from a caliphate being established by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, consequences from a pending election in Nigeria will have a lasting impact on the continent and for the world.

In the same period where 17 civilians were killed in France, prompting the mobilisation of more than 80,000 police and military resources flooding Paris streets, more than 2,000 civilians were murdered in the northeastern Nigerian town of Baga by Boko Haram. Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, which in Arabic means, “People of the Sunnah for Preaching and Jihad Group,” is more commonly referred to by its namesake translated from the local dialect as, “Western education is sin.”

Boko Haram rose to international pariah status in the spring of 2014 when the al- Qaeda-aligned group kidnapped more than 270 Christian girls. The #BringBackOurGirls social media campaign prompted worldwide outrage but produced little results to date.

Boko Haram’s brutal campaign of enforcing radical Islamic ideology by kidnapping and genocidal murder has spread like a cancer throughout Northeastern Nigeria. Since the terror group’s inception in 2001, Boko Haram has captured several Northern towns and declared a caliphate over an expanse of Nigeria that exceeds the area of Belgium and the territory currently claimed by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Their stated intent is to establish Sharia law governing territory crossing over into Chad, Niger and Cameroon. Currently, 12 of 36 states in the Muslim majority Northern Nigeria are under the jurisprudence of Sharia law.

An unchecked terror rampage is looming as the Nigerian presidential election on March 28 nears. This has propelled an opposition candidate to the forefront, former military ruler and retired general Muhammadu Buhari, who ruled Nigeria with an iron fist after a coup d’etat more than 30 years ago.

With many Northern states on the verge of collapse due to radical Islamists, pushing for a Muslim strongman to restore security and stability on the surface seems an unlikely choice. Buhari’s previous 20-month reign was brief, and most remembered for his “war against indiscipline” that included publicly punishing tardy civil servants, jailing journalists for writing critical articles, expelling other West African immigrants blamed for the country’s problems and issuing a presidential decree that made drug dealing an ex-post-facto capital offence that led to petty drug dealers being executed by firing squad.

Buhari is on record stating, “I will continue to show openly and inside me the total commitment to the Sharia movement that is sweeping all over Nigeria. God willing, we will not stop the agitation for the total implementation of the Sharia in the country.”

Is someone who harbours such hardline Islamic views the horse to bet on to confront Boko Haram, who wants its twisted version of the Quran to be the law of the land for all of Nigeria?

With over 170 million people, the former British colony is Africa’s most populous nation, largest oil producer and the continent’s largest economy. Despite the destabilising security situation in the North, under President Goodluck Jonathan, the economy has rebounded and been put on the path to steady growth. Per capita income as a function of Gross Domestic Product has more than doubled from five per cent to 11 per cent — and overall GDP has increased from $391bn in 2010 to $972bn today. In 2014 alone, the Nigerian economy created over 840,000 new jobs, and grown an average of seven per cent per year since President Jonathan’s term began. The global ranking of the Nigerian economy has risen from 31st to 20th over this same period.

While Ebola has been ravaging West Africa for the past year, aggressive steps taken by the Nigerian government and established medical protocols stopped the virus in its tracks. Existing health care surveillance infrastructure in place to monitor cases of polio rapidly identified an infected Liberian man who travelled to Nigeria and infected 19 others. The state run facilities were able to quickly mobilise, treat the infected and contain the spread of Ebola. The World Health Organisation declared Nigeria to be Ebola-free in September 2014.

Polio cases have been reduced an astounding 90 per cent in one year, from 53 in 2013 to six total in 2014, without a new case being reported over the last six months.

Despite significant strides made in the Nigerian economy and health care system, the lynchpin issues in the upcoming presidential election are security and the radical Islamic threat posed by Boko Haram. Nigerian military efforts to confront and combat Boko Haram had proved ineffective until recently. This must change regardless of the outcome of the election.

In 1983, the Nigerian military overthrew the democratically elected Second Republic, and Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari emerged as the chairman of the Supreme Military Council and the new head of state. He was ousted by a subsequent military revolt 20 months later. Not until 1999, when President Yar’Adua’s immediate predecessor, Olusegun Obasanjo, was elected by popular vote, did Nigeria return to a democratically elected government backed by rule of law.

Will the legacy of the third democratically elected Nigerian president since the reign of successive military juntas be a return to strongman rule by one of the era’s notorious namesakes? Will it also mean a return to attacks on the freedom of the press and establishing a rule of law that espouses an ideology denying individual freedoms and personal liberties?

Unless the United States and the West put their public support and resources behind African leaders more closely aligned with our own democratic principles, the crows coming home to roost on display in France today will also eventually threaten our own national security.

- O’Shea is a former Navy SEAL commander who has deployed frequently to the Middle East and Africa over the past two decades. He was the coordinator for the Hostage Working Group at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad from 2004 to 2006 and served as a counter-insurgency adviser for the commander of International Security Forces-Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012.

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