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In Aiding Rescue of Kidnapped Schoolgirls in Nigeria, Will the US Expand Military Foothold in Africa?

Just last week, the United States deployed a battalion of 80 marines to Nigeria to help search for the nearly 300 missing schoolgirls there.

In a speech today, President Obama is expected to lay out a U.S. foreign policy approach that avoids large wars like Iraq and Afghanistan, and shifts instead to partnering with countries on counterterrorism efforts. This comes as The New York Times reports the Obama administration has launched a program to train “homegrown African counterterrorism teams” in Libya, Niger, Mauritania and Mali. Just last week, the United States also deployed a battalion of 80 marines to Nigeria to help search for the nearly 300 missing schoolgirls there. The head of Nigeria’s military has said the military now knows where the abducted girls are being held, but has ruled out using force to rescue them for fear of endangering their lives. We discuss the situation in Nigeria and the growing fears that the schoolgirls’ kidnapping could be exploited to further U.S. militarism in Africa with two guests: Dayo Olopade is a Nigerian-American journalist and author of The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa, and Carl LeVan is an assistant professor at American University’s School of International Service and author of the forthcoming book, Dictators and Democracy in African Development: The Political Economy of Good Governance in Nigeria.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: In a speech later today, President Obama is expected to lay out a U.S. foreign policy approach that avoids large wars like Iraq and Afghanistan, and shifts instead to partnering with countries on counterterrorism efforts. This comes as The New York Times reports the Obama administration launched a program last year to train, quote, “homegrown African counterterrorism teams” in Libya, Niger, Mauritania and Mali. Just last week, the United States also deployed a battalion of 80 marines to Nigeria to help search for the nearly 300 missing schoolgirls there. Meanwhile on Tuesday, the group responsible for the kidnapping, Boko Haram, attacked a Nigerian military base and killed more than 30 people in the state of Yobe, not far from where the militants killed 59 students at a boarding school in February. All of this follows a nearly year-long military offensive that critics say strengthened the group and made it a threat to security in the whole region.

AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, Nigeria’s chief of defense staff, Air Marshal Alex Badeh, said the military now knows where the abducted girls are being held, but he ruled out using force to rescue them, for fear of endangering their lives.

AIR MARSHAL ALEX BADEH: The good news for the girls is that we can—we know where they are, but we cannot tell you. OK, we cannot come and tell you military secrets here. Just leave us alone. We are working. We will get the girls back.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Meanwhile, Nigerians in the capital city of Abuja continued to call for more to be done to secure the release of the schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram. This is Musa Rafsanjani with the Civil Society Group.

MUSA RAFSANJANI: Now the speculation about knowing where those girls are is now put to rest now, since the army have confirmed that they have discovered where they are. So we are happy with this development. The next step is we want to see how the army could help to rescue these girls safely and alive and bring them back to their parents. That’s what we expect the Nigerian army to do. If they do that, surely they will restore confidence on Nigerians and the international community.

AMY GOODMAN: For more on the situation in Nigeria and the newly revealed U.S. program to train so-called homegrown African counterterrorism teams in Libya, Niger, Mauritania and Mali, we’re joined by Dayo Olopado [sic]. She is a Nigerian—sorry, Olipade. She is a Nigerian-American journalist and author of The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

DAYO OLOPADE: Thank you so much for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. Talk about the latest.

DAYO OLOPADE: You know, I think just looking at those clips and hearing folks express confidence in the Nigerian government and the Nigerians’ military’s ability to rescue these girls rang a bit false to me. I think this has been a problem for upwards of five years with respect to Boko Haram. And earlier in this debacle, the Nigerian government claimed that they had found the girls. So, unless there’s really some sort of hard evidence that they really have managed to track the girls down and they really do have the capacity and the willingness to rescue them, I would take some of these assertions with a grain of salt.

And I think, in general, that’s been one of the more frustrating elements of this dynamic, where, you know, the most basic definition of a state is to have a monopoly on violence and monopoly on force. And the Nigerian state, not just in northeast Nigeria but throughout, has presided over a feeling of insecurity in the part of many citizens—economic insecurity, educational insecurity, and certainly sort of physical insecurity, particularly in the neglected areas in these regions that border Niger and Chad, where you’re seeing a lot of these attacks take place, beyond the police attack in Abuja this week, but just—you know, more than 1,500 people have been killed this year by Boko Haram. So it’s a real problem that they have not managed to get a handle on.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And many commentators suggest, in fact, that Nigerian military and security forces operations in fact bolstered the group Boko Haram from 2009 to the present. Could you say a little about that and how that happened?

DAYO OLOPADE: Right. I mean, the incentives simply are not aligned. I think the Nigerian military spends a lower percentage of its federal budget on military policing than almost any of the other countries in West Africa. And this is, ironically, in a country where the military has been—is enormous compared to its neighbors, does a lot of policing on behalf of the African Union all throughout the continent. And so, the soldiers are underpaid. What’s more, the soldiers, at least some of them, are predominantly Muslim, and some subsection of those soldiers are also part of the ethnic group that makes up Boko Haram. So, when I say the incentives are misaligned, it is not always clear where the allegiance lies between the military group, a religious sort of community and an ethnic community. And I think, you know, looking at the Times piece, it was about the American effort to engage soldiers in sub-Saharan Africa and to train them. The problem that happened in Libya, that was discussed in that article, was one where the incentives were not aligned, where it was not clear to which community these soldiers were actually pledging allegiance. And I think you see that replicated in other regions where the U.S. has attempted to make these kind of training efforts, where it really does require a lot of trust and a lot of capacity building. And in Nigeria, certainly, there are complicated political incentives and complicated ethnic, religious dynamics that make it such that the Boko Haram threat has been somewhat neutralized.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think needs to happen in Nigeria right now in terms of these schoolgirls?

DAYO OLOPADE: You know, I think it’s a really difficult issue. I think, as I mentioned, you have more than 1,500 people who have been killed by Boko Haram this year. Since 2009, the number leaps. And what’s really more frustrating is that we don’t necessarily—this is a different situation than a bombing. It’s a kidnapping. It’s a hostage situation. And the position of both the Nigerian government and the American government and most governments around the world is that you do not negotiate with terrorists. And they’ve been—at first, there was a kidnapping without an ask. It was just sort of a nihilistic act in which these girls were taken overnight. And then, suddenly, there was an ask for a prisoner exchange, where folks who had been imprisoned by Goodluck Jonathan administration were asked to be set free. And that deal, as I understand it, sort of evaporated in the last week.

And so, now I do think the United States, for what it’s worth, is a useful partner for this kind of complicated and delicate hostage situation. I think Nigerian forces and many forces across the continent may not have the kind of—the training, the intelligence, the sophistication, the personnel and the weaponry to enact, you know, the kind of extraction that we think would be necessary in this case. So the U.S. has sent helicopters, and they’ve sent drones, as we do, to try and deal with the situation.

And, you know, I don’t—I will wait and see. I mean, I don’t know. It’s not a hopeful situation. Hostage situations rarely are. But certainly, the world community’s attention to the issue, the fact that it’s become a kind of global cause, certainly allows for more transparency and more care than might have been shown, you know, in the weeks before it became public, or globally public. And so, in that case, I hope for something like a resolution soon.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Could you say a little bit more about the group Boko Haram? It started in 2009 in Nigeria, but it’s now spread to some neighboring countries—Chad and Niger, etc. Who—how many people are in the group? What is their constitution, their goal, if you could say a little about that?

DAYO OLOPADE: Yes. Well, Boko Haram, I mean, we don’t have exact numbers. I think the most important thing to know about Boko Haram is that it is an extreme manifestation of a kind of shared frustration among many young people all across sub-Saharan Africa, right? I mean, Boko Haram is a terrorist group, but a terrorist group that was initially driven by a sense of disenfranchisement, a sense of disinvestment, a sense of being on the periphery of a central government that wasn’t taking care of it. A lack of employment opportunities also drove this. And that’s something that you see replicated across sub-Saharan Africa, which is why the rise of Boko Haram has been so dangerous, because it’s the kind of thing that—the International Labour Organization tracks youth employment statistics. It’s all over the world the highest it’s been since they started taking these measurements. And so, the combination of disenfranchisement, religious fundamentalism and, in the wake of the invasion in Libya, arms floating around across the Sahara to the south, in Mali, in Niger, in Chad, and now in northern Nigeria, you have just a really dangerous combination.

And so, Boko Haram was an Islamist group that—again, the name is often misconstrued. It’s not anti-religion—or, sorry, anti-Western, but it’s mostly about the Western-educated elites who ran Nigeria for many years and who disenfranchised the north of Nigeria, which still has high rates of poverty, high rates of illiteracy, high rates of unemployment. It has—since 2009, as a result of the Nigerian government’s overcorrection, they killed the leader in a sort of a very bloody and public fashion, and killed, you know, more than 700 folks. It was a very—it was a crackdown that radicalized the group beyond what we had seen in the past. And so, since then, it’s been, you know, just one series of attacks after another, and in a part of Nigeria that is incredibly porous and lots of weapons infiltrate the area, and so it’s a really difficult problem to solve. The root causes, of course, are just the same things you see everywhere, which is underemployment, poverty, idleness, lack of education.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Dayo Olopade, who has written a new book; it’s called The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa. We’re also joined by Democracy Now! video stream by Carl LeVan, assistant professor at American University School of International Service, author of the forthcoming book, Dictators and Democracy in African Development: The Political Economy of Good Governance in Nigeria, last week wrote an op-ed for The Christian Science Monitor headlined “Six Ways to #BringBackOurGirls in Nigeria.” Welcome, as well, to Democracy Now!, Carl. Can you talk about the—what are those six ways, but also whether you see what’s happening now, the crisis, being used to further militarize Africa?

CARL LEVAN: Great. Thanks for having me on the show, Amy.

Well, I wrote this op-ed with one of the #BringBackOurGirls organizers, because we felt like that the response to the kidnapping of the girls was becoming politicized, actually, on both sides of the Atlantic, and that there were some really important and urgent steps that could be taken right now that didn’t require new laws or expensive new policies or even large-scale international cooperation.

One idea was to establish what we described as solidarity schools in the north. And that is, in addition to these girls who have been kidnapped, there are tens of thousands of girls who would like to go to school, but it’s too dangerous for them or too complicated for them. And so we proposed this idea of solidarity schools in the northeastern states, where they could go to nearby places that are safer, and that this would also facilitate national integration. One of the wealthiest men in Africa, Dangote, has proposed a similar idea recently.

Also, you know, we proposed that the political parties, who are gearing up for a major election next year in February 2015, could simply invite more women to run for office. In some parts of the country, there are actually no women who are officeholders. For example, in the northeast, in the six northeastern states in 2011, not a single woman was elected to state assemblies.

A third issue was the widespread problem of internally displaced persons and now refugees. And this is not solely a problem to be blamed on Boko Haram, although Boko Haram certainly bears the brunt of this problem, but it’s also because of the government’s heavy-handed response to Boko Haram. As they say in Africa, when the elephants fight, the grass suffers. And this is the situation. The Nigerian Emergency Management Agency, NEMA, just a couple of days ago, outlined that there are hundreds of thousands of people who have been displaced. And this is a problem that has been neglected somewhat by the international community and, on the domestic front within Nigeria, really needs an urgent and politically neutral humanitarian response.

So those are some of the ideas that we were outlining. The last one that I’ll just mention briefly, because it’s very relevant to developments since yesterday, is that the government could do much more to coordinate its information and simply hold a press conference every day. The Nigerian government, since yesterday, has not even sent consistent signals about whether it’s negotiating through back channels or otherwise with Boko Haram.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Carl LeVan, you were in Nigeria when these girls were abducted?

CARL LEVAN: That’s correct. I was in Nigeria for my second trip there this year in April. And even before the protests erupted in Abuja, it was clear that there was a shift in the public mood, that for a long time people were angry and scared of Boko Haram, and frustrations were actually building towards the government, where they said—where people were starting to say, “How is it possible that we have this much insecurity in three states that are under a state of emergency? How is it possible that nearly 300 girls can be driven down rural roads?” There’s only about a thousand kilometers of paved roads in Borno state, the state where the girls were taken. And this is a state that has been under a federally declared state of emergency for over a year. How do you move that many people in a state that’s under federal military state of emergency?

AMY GOODMAN: Your response to this, Dayo?

DAYO OLOPADE: I think, you know, Nigerian government is characterized by a lack of capacity and a lack of willingness on so many levels, for some of the reasons I described with respect to the makeup of the military. I think you’re very right to point out that the Nigerian elections next year feature prominently in a sort of looking the other way. I think the need to build coalitions amongst the traditional power-sharing agreement between north and south, Christians and Muslims, certainly drives some of the—the light touch that the military and the Jonathan government has taken with respect to the states that are under emergency.

I think it’s really frustrating that citizens taking to the streets—which, I would just like to underscore, is very unusual in Nigeria. It is very unusual to see—I mean, there has been no African Spring, I think, for a reason. In my reporting for the book, and all across sub-Saharan Africa, people are much more likely to try and go about their daily business, to try and fill in the holes the government has left, with their own ingenuity, with their own family networks, with technology now. So, to see people, first during the Occupy Nigeria movement, which was a response to rising petrol prices, which is the sort of neoliberal government strategy at this point, as well as this more recent #BringBackOurGirls, was really unusual, really unusual, and, I think, represents, I think, a hopeful reclamation of the narrative from Boko Haram at the extreme end, again, to a shared complaint, which is that the government does not provide the most basic services to the 170 million citizens of Nigeria. So, to the extent that these protests are a civil—civil society movement that may have more lingering effects in terms of building the sort of “enough is enough” sensibility amongst the population, then I would actually count it as a positive thing, because for the most part Nigerians have been like, “What have you done for me lately?” And often the answer is: “Very little.” But in this case, perhaps, we’ll be able to see more responsiveness.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Carl LeVan, this issue of U.S. militarization in Africa?

CARL LEVAN: Right. Well, this is very important, because—for a number of reasons. One is because when the United States Pentagon organized its Africa Command starting around 2007, 2008, there were all of these grand promises that it was going to be a different kind of command and that it was going to show a kinder, softer, gentler side of the United States military, and it was going to engage in a lot of nonkinetic missions and a lot of humanitarian and development. This, of course, made the development community in the United States and elsewhere quite nervous. And, you know, there was a debate about whether it was an effort to build military bases. President Bush, in one of his more eloquent moments, called this, quote-unquote, “baloney.”

And so, now with the recent revelations by Eric Schmitt’s excellent reporting that the United States has been secretly expanding military assistance to Libya, Mauritania, Niger and Mali—$16 million to Libya; $29 million to Mauritania; $15 million for counterterrorism assistance in Niger, where, by the way, the United States last year just established a separate drone base that it’s been using for overflights into Mali—all of this confirms that much of this thrust was, after all, about expanding military operations on the continent. And to some extent, some of the governments, as I have written about and researched, are open to this kind of cooperation, especially with this sort of crisis. But that presents a real problem where you have governments of questionable legitimacy.

And this is where the grassroots organizations that your guest is outlining are so important. And the only other time in recent memory that this happened in a significant way, other than Occupy Nigeria, was in 2010, just before the 2011 elections. And the government at that time was very responsive, as well, to grassroots pressure. And so, you know, there’s a new wave of grassroots pressure among the organizers, the original organizers of the #BringBackOurGirls movement. For example, they have a petition pleading with President Obama and other officials, “We want peace, not bombs,” that if you really want to address Boko Haram, you need a demilitarized solution to address the long-term issues that you’ve already outlined.

AMY GOODMAN: Dayo, very quickly, we have 30 seconds.

DAYO OLOPADE: Oh, I just wanted to point out that, you know, when I was living in Kenya, while I was reporting The Bright Continent, it is so often African citizens who are bearing the blowback from the U.S.’s light footprint in Africa. They’re prosecuting a war in Somalia, Ugandan and Kenyan troops, but the Westgate Mall attack, as among many different attacks, was an example of African citizens paying the price for an extension of the American war on terror.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain that a little further.

DAYO OLOPADE: Well, I mean, they’ve been—the United States has been supporting the invasion into Somalia with everything but troops. It is African troops that are in Somalia, and it is Somalis who are attacking Africans in retribution because they’re on the ground there. And so, the Westgate Mall attack, which we all watched in horror, in Nairobi was a direct effect of the fact that Somali militants are retaliating for a war on their soil, funded by the United States, but prosecuted by African troops.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us, Dayo Olopade. Her book is The Bright Continent, Nigerian-American journalist, the subtitle, Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa. Carl LeVan, thanks for being with us, assistant professor at American University.

CARL LEVAN: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: That does it for this segment. We are going to move to another part of Africa, to Egypt, in a moment. Sharif Abdel Kouddous will join us from a polling place in Cairo. Not many people are turning out. Stay with us.

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