Better Secrets gathered that in spite of the increasing evidences that the Nigerian government’s heavy-handed strategy for containing a radical Islamist sect has failed, some Western officials are urging a new and less militarized approach.
Repeated Nigerian military incursions against the group have yielded many civilian casualties but still not reduce the activities of Boko Haram. It merely went underground after a bloody operation against it in 2009, and now carries out regular attacks against the Nigerian government and people.
“I think we’d like to see Nigeria take a more holistic approach,” said the American ambassador here, Terence P. McCulley, in an interview at the well-guarded and fortress-like United States Embassy here in the Nigerian capital.
“Clearly, the 2009 tactics may have contributed to the current direction,” he said, adding that the Nigerian security forces should not jeopardize civilians in their operations. He suggested that the government “address the grievances” of the northern population on economic and social matters.
Boko Haram continues to call for a strict application of Shariah law and the freeing of imprisoned members in northern Nigeria, where mass unemployment and poverty have fueled social unrest. Actually, about 50 million youths are underemployed, the World Bank says, in a country of 154 million. Despite abundant oil revenues, incomes have barely budged in 30 years, life expectancy is only 48 and the country remains one of the most economically unequal in the world, the United Nations says.
In the wake of last week Friday’s bombing, analysts and officials warn that those factors make repression a poor tactic for confronting Boko Haram.
“The chickens have come home to roost,” said another Western diplomat, who was not authorized to speak publicly. “Nigeria’s political elite has been ruling irresponsibly for decades, shamelessly plundering the nation’s wealth with little or no regard for the country’s masses,” the diplomat said in an e-mail. “The rise of Boko Haram and its millions of tacit, quiet supporters is a challenge to this corrupt political class.”
Mr. McCulley, the American ambassador, called the United Nations bombing a “paradigm shift,” adding that “it suggests Boko Haram has upped its game, if you will. It seems to show it wishes to expand its scope beyond the domestic.”
The ambassador said that the attack on the United Nations was a “game changer,” and that American interests could also be in the group’s sights. “It would be foolish to consider that we are not a possible target as well,” he said.
Indeed, in a conference call after the attack, a man describing himself as a spokesman for Boko Haram said that the United States was culpable because it “has been collaborating with the Nigerian government to clamp down on our members nationwide.” Both he and another self-described spokesman warned of more attacks to come.
Mr. McCulley, while saying there was no “direct evidence” of links between Boko Haram and Al Qaeda, said the group’s attacks have “become more sophisticated, more Al Qaeda-like. They’ve adopted some of their tactics.”
Other Western and Nigerian officials and analysts say members of Boko Haram have met and trained with Qaeda affiliates outside the country. They also cite propaganda by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in which the group boasts of assisting Boko Haram and pledges to help it avenge attacks on Muslims in Nigeria, including the killing of Boko Haram’s leader during the 2009 military assault.
Mr. McCulley said that current American training programs with Nigerian security services could be expanded. “I believe that going forward we’re going to have a more robust engagement with the army,” he said. F.B.I. agents arrived here to assist with the investigation soon after the bombing.
Even after the deadly United Nations bombing, which killed 11 United Nations staff members, including 10 Nigerians and one Norwegian woman, political violence attributed to Boko Haram continued in northern Nigeria over the weekend. A bomb was thrown into the home of the former police minister — no one was injured — and a local official was shot in his home by gunmen in Borno State, the center of the insurgency.
These attacks have become so routine in northern Nigeria that they now rate only a few paragraphs in the country’s newspapers. On Tuesday, Nigerian media reported that the national police chief, Hafiz Ringim, announced arrests in the United Nations bombing, but previous such arrests have not led to any decline in Boko Haram’s activities. Mr. Ringim had vowed earlier that Boko Haram’s days were “numbered,” and after his headquarters in Abuja was bombed in June, the police chief announced a crackdown.
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