Should Boko Haram be labeled a Foreign Terrorist Organization? – By Christopher O’Connor

Shekau

Abubakar Shekau, leader of Boko Haram, is listed by the State Department as a ‘Specially Designated Global Terrorist’ – should his movement be given similar status?

On November 13, two Subcommittees in the US House of Representatives – Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations and the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade – will hold a joint hearing to discuss the threat posed by Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, better known as Boko Haram. In the wake of persistent and heinous attacks on civilians perpetrated by its militants, most recently an attack on a wedding party claiming 30 lives, Congress looks poised to propose legislation compelling the US State Department to label Boko Haram as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). When debating this legislation Congress should be asking not if Boko Haram is a terrorist organization, but does this legislation contribute to promoting human rights and security in North-East Nigeria?

In June 2012 the US State Department labeled Boko Haram leaders, including Abubakar Shekau, Abubakar Adam Kambar, and Khalid al-Barnawi, as Specially Designated Global Terrorists, but it has so far resisted pressure to add the organization to the FTO list. Many Nigeria watchers in Washington, including former Ambassador John Campbell, have backed the US State Department’s approach, arguing that “it [Boko Haram] does not pose a threat to the American homeland” at present, and that “Americans could become a Boko Haram target” if the US government is perceived as  closely aligning with Abuja’s war against the group.

Despite these concerns, many in Congress are likely to argue that the United States cannot tolerate a radical insurgency that burns down schools, shoots students, and decapitates motorists. Designating a group as an FTO introduces new tools designed to combat the organization, including financial restrictions, and disincentivises organizations or individuals from associating with it. The potential impact proposed legislation will have in weakening Boko Haram is, however, unclear. Those individuals and organizations likely to be associating with, and/or funding, Boko Haram at this time are unlikely to be swayed by US disapproval. Several of Boko Haram’s potential associates are already proscribed by the US government.

Nonetheless, ascribing Boko Haram to the FTO list sends a clear message to Nigerians and the global community that the US is appalled by the group’s actions. In principle, those pushing for legislation in Congress are correct: Boko Haram is an organisation that indiscriminately commits gross acts of terror against the government of Nigeria and average Nigerians alike, and the US should condemn terrorism wherever and whenever it occurs, while simultaneously supporting human rights.

The real issue is not that the legislation would force the US State Department to call a spade a spade, but that such legislation ignores the other half of the equation. Legislation that deems Boko Haram to be a terrorist organization does nothing to curb the Nigerian government’s human rights abuses in the North-East. Moreover, the Nigerian government would likely interpret the legislation as an endorsement of the current tactics it employs in its campaign to subdue Boko Haram.

Recent Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reports suggest, and a broad cross section of Nigerian civil society organisations confirm, that the Nigerian military is guilty of committing abhorrent acts of violence against the population in the North-East states. Amnesty documented nearly 1000 deaths in Nigerian prisons, largely of suspected Boko Haram detainees, in 2013. Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch asserts that almost half of the 4,700 fatalities associated with the Boko Haram crisis over the last several years are the victims of security force violence.

The failure of the Nigerian state to guarantee the human dignity of its citizens in the North-East states, whether in reference to development needs or basic human rights, is what enabled this current conflict to spiral out of control in the first place.  Congressional legislation compelling the US State Department to condemn the violence perpetrated by Boko Haram, while failing to condemn that carried out by the Nigerian state, runs the risk of creating three negative ramifications that undermine US Foreign policy in Nigeria.

First, this legislation could feed into the suspicions held by some Nigerians that the United States is siding with the Jonathan Administration over the Nigerian people, and/or with Nigerian Christians over Nigerian Muslims, thus diminishing the good will felt by substantial portions of the Nigerian population towards the United States.

Second, it reinforces a perception that the United States only works to protect human rights when it serves US interests, limiting the US government’s ability to combat extremism and promote human rights.

Last, and perhaps most important, condemning Boko Haram violence while turning a blind eye to state abuses perpetuates an environment that fosters violence and instability in Nigeria, that if left unchecked may actually threaten US interests in the long run.

If Congress is concerned by the human rights violations and widespread insecurity in North-East Nigeria, and feels compelled to label Boko Haram as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, it should also formally reproach the Nigerian government for its gross human rights violations, demanding accountability – including criminal prosecutions of military personnel involved in human rights abuses—and encourage a human security centered approach to restoring order.

Christopher O’Connor is Assistant Program Officer for West Africa at the National Endowment for Democracy. The views expressed above are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of NED.

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6 thoughts on “Should Boko Haram be labeled a Foreign Terrorist Organization? – By Christopher O’Connor

  1. It is amazing hearing the anti-Abuja apologists in 2013.
    This ‘support’, or perhaps, sympathy for Boko Haram never occured when in 2009 Yaradua slaughtered over 800 people.
    I guess something must have changed with ‘sympathy’ for Abuja.

  2. If the FTO should take into account the behaviour of the host government – so AQAP in Yemen should be downgraded, as should AQIM in Nigeria.

    Campbell soup with less taste.

  3. Let me attack these three naive assumptions.

    1. “First, this legislation could feed into the suspicions held by some Nigerians that the United States is siding with the Jonathan Administration over the Nigerian people, and/or with Nigerian Christians over Nigerian Muslims, thus diminishing the good will felt by substantial portions of the Nigerian population towards the United States”.

    The assumption here is that the Christian community in Nigeria either doesn’t matter to the US or that the US is fine if creates the impression that it favours the views of the Northern Muslim elite over anyone else in Nigeria.

    Another naive assumption implicit in this statement is that the parents of those kids murdered by Boko Haram will somehow side against the US if Boko Haram is designated as an FTO. Or that ordinary Muslims, who bear the brunt of Boko Haram attacks will be happier with the US if it sits on the fence than taking an active stance.

    2. “Second, it reinforces a perception that the United States only works to protect human rights when it serves US interests, limiting the US government’s ability to combat extremism and promote human rights.”

    I don’t know what point the author is trying to make here – but the major reason why Boko Haram is yet to be designated as an FTO IS BECAUSE THERE ARE NO US STRATEGIC INTERESTS IN NORTH EAST NIGERIA.

    So by sitting on the fence on the FTO designation for Boko Haram – THAT POINT HAS BEEN MADE ABUNDANTLY CLEAR to millions of intelligent Nigerians (we aren’t all stupid).

    3. “Last, and perhaps most important, condemning Boko Haram violence while turning a blind eye to state abuses perpetuates an environment that fosters violence and instability in Nigeria, that if left unchecked may actually threaten US interests in the long run.”

    No point beating around the bush here – US is already doing this stuff in Yemen, Pakistan or Somalia. Nobody believes the US is “Mother Teresa” & as long as US blindly supports Israel, she will be hated by the largely illiterate Muslim population of Northern Nigeria.

    So this is a waste of time. US should call a spade a spade.

  4. Let me just add that whatever the US does about the “Foreign Terrorist Organisation” designation is immaterial – its reputation for “sitting on the fence” as far as issues in Sub-Saharan Africa is concerned has been cement.

    There are quite a few smart people in Nigeria and they can figure out that:

    1. If US citizens were harmed by Boko Haram, this designation would have been passed a long time ago.

    2. Nigerians know that the delay in designating Boko Haram an FTO is driven by a desire not to offend. a. The Northern Muslim Hausa/Fulani elite & b. Its “partners” in high places in the Nigerian government who don’t want restrictions on money laundering.

    In summary, the US will continue to do as much as possible to sit on the fence in Sub-Saharan Africa. Nothing new here.

  5. Reading this piece comes through as if the United States is designating (or securitizing; borrowing from the Copenhagen School on Security) the Boko Haram sect without any string attached. It is not true that there is no US strategic interest in the North-East of Nigeria. The issue of Human Rights is only a smokescreen. A careful observer of the trend in international security and the US obsession with anti terrorism will easily place a finger on the US interest in designating Bokom Haram a ‘Foreign Terrorist Organisation’; just two points will suffice here.
    One, in the wake of the controversial (see Judy Wood’s ‘Where did the Towers go?’, 2010) 9/11, 2001 terrorist on the Twin Towers in New York, US, Washington is bent on smashing any semblance of terrorism anywhere in the world knowing that it is a target. it is not yet proved that Boko Haram is not connected to Al Qaeda in the Malghrib (AQIM) or wider AL Qaeda network. That partly explains Washington’s interest in securitizing Boko Haram sect.
    Secondly, Nigeria is part of Gulf of Guinea and America’s strategic interest in the Gulf of Guinea is indisputable. This is a region that provides a significant percentage of energy to the US. In the world of Strategy, it is suicidal to leave such an area in the hands of an enemy. Consider the US-African Command (AFRICOM), a military command put in place to ensure easy accessibility to this rich energy source especially with the Middle East becoming too volatile for the West, the US and Europe.
    I strongly argue therefore that America’s interest in the Bokom Haram issue is underlined by these strategic interests.

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