Even as Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan was busy condoling the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack in France, terrorists belonging to the shadowy and brutal Boko Haram were slaughtering an entire town in Baga and surrounding villages in the impoverished, Muslim-dominated north.
Details are sketchy, but eyewitnesses report scenes of devastating savagery, some estimating that 2,000 people have been murdered. In the course of a bloody insurgency, Boko Haram has mutated from a ragtag band of fighters conducting sporadic raids and bombings into a force that now reportedly dominates an area the size of Costa Rica. Yet Jonathan, who has been president since 2010, has done little to contain the threat. Denouncing the Paris attacks as “dastardly”, he has yet to speak on Boko Haram’s latest and deadliest demonstration of its brutality. His government has chosen to quibble over death tolls from the Baga massacre.
Jonathan has made Boko Haram a partisan issue. When the group’s initial violence was directed primarily at the Christian-dominated south, his supporters sniffed a plot designed by opponents to weaken his government. Since then, his administration has deflected criticism by blaming that trusty old scapegoat, the West, for Boko Haram’s escalating butchery — and capacity to take on and elude the Nigerian military, conveniently forgetting that it was Jonathan who cancelled a Pentagon programme to create a special battalion to combat Boko Haram. But without the Nigerian military’s indifference, abject human rights record and tactical failures, Boko Haram could not have morphed into a threat comparable to the Islamic State.
Nigeria goes to the polls in less than a month, on February 14. While Boko Haram’s goal in launching the barbaric operation in Baga is unclear, the group condemns democracy itself as anti-Islam. The insecurity born from the Baga horror could suppress voter turnout in opposition strongholds, ironically strengthening Jonathan’s position. But Nigeria has no time to waste.