Nigeria vs. Islamic Extremism

In late February, Reverend Phyllis Sortor, a Free Methodist Church missionary and aid worker, was kidnapped in Nigeria while offering humanitarian services in the region. It is widely believed that Boko Haram, already responsible for 4000 deaths this year alone, is the culprit. As usual, President Obama has done little to respond, protect American lives, or counter the actions of Islamic terrorists… sorry – violent extremism.

Regrettably, as we have seen with the deaths of American citizens in Libya, the White House’s inaction this not surprising, but yet another example of ambivalent behavior that raises questions about Obama’s willingness to confront Islamic extremism in all its forms. If we do not confront this threat, stories like Reverend Sortor’s will become the norm rather than the exception.

Meanwhile, Nigeria fights for its survival as a modern democratic state. Split between a Christian south and an Islamic north, Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation, a battleground against Islamic terrorism, and a major oil-exporting nation. The country was thrown into the global spotlight thanks to its key role in the fight against Islamic radicalism and the spread of regressive Sharia law in Africa and beyond. While a transnational force made up of 7500 soldiers from neighboring Chad, Cameroon, and Niger has already been set up to help Nigeria, the U.S. has so far hung its ally out to dry.

Currently ruled by right-wing President Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria is going thorough its most difficult moments in recent history. Although there have been setbacks along the way, President Jonathan has tried to forge a strong multiethnic state that respects democracy and economic growth in Nigeria. But the upcoming presidential elections, slated for March 28, could mark a stark turnaround.

General Muhammadu Buhari, a former dictator who was deposed in the 1980s after seizing power in a coup, is Jonathan’s main contender and polls put them neck and neck. Buhari has pledged to lock up Nigerian politicians and civil servants who oppose or hinder his policies if he is elected. During his time as president in the 80s, a disastrous 20 months which ended in a popular revolution led by military officers, Buhari imprisoned journalists and artists, sentenced to death individuals by applying retroactive laws, and gagged the media. After Buhari’s loss in the 2011 election, his supporters killed hundreds and displaced nearly 65000 in violence throughout Nigeria. For his involvement in the post-election violence, a case has been filed against him at the International Criminal Court. Moreover, in a bizarre confluence of minds with Boko Haram, the general has also pledged full allegiance to Sharia law and has vowed to impose it in Nigeria by saying “I can die for the cause of Islam. If necessary, we are prepared to fight another civil war. We cannot be blackmailed into killing Sharia”

Incredibly, not only is the Obama Administration tacitly endorsing Buhari, but it has connections with Buhari’s campaign. Obama confidante and political operative, David Axelrod, has been working as an advisor for the Buhari camp. Even Secretary of State John Kerry criticized President Jonathan’s temporary delay of elections to address the violent Boko Haram threat, deeming them “unnecessary.”

What the United States does not need is the rise of an illiberal, Islamist state that does not respect modern laws and economic liberties in Africa’s largest democracy. This is unacceptable for the American strategic vision for Africa, but this is a possible outcome if Buhari seizes power in Nigeria.

Had the White House been committed to stop Boko Haram and give hope to the Nigerians who are considering electing a 72-year-old former dictator running on a ludicrous platform of “The Change Team”, it would have lifted restrictions on the selling of weapons to the Nigerian military. Under the so-called Leahy amendment, the U.S. is prohibited from delivering military equipment to units and regimes believed to employ questionable tactics, or which have spotty human rights records.

Among strong allies that have received military aid under Leahy exemptions include Israel and Egypt, two nations currently locked in existential battles with Hizb’allah and the Muslim Brotherhood, respectively. Nigeria should be included in this list of regional powers that deserve our help in their fight against Boko Haram. Admittedly, Nigeria has work to do to uphold the principles of freedom and liberty, but Jonathan has carried out a good faith effort to keep Nigeria on the path to a functioning democracy.

It is time for the Obama administration to act and supply Nigeria with the appropriate tools and support needed to keep Boko Haram at bay. If not, we may see yet another regime fall under the direct influence of extremists, and Nigeria will be another in the long list of foreign policy failures that must be laid at the feet of Barack Obama.