Combating Boko Haram in Nigeria: is the UK doing enough?

Boko Haram (which means ‘Western education is forbidden’) has forced its way onto the UK news agenda over the last month – first through its bomb attack on a bus station in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, which claimed at least 71 lives, and then by abducting about 190 teenage girls from a school in Borno State in the northeast of the country.

First emerging in 2009, Boko Haram is the latest in a series of militant organisations to take up arms in pursuit of sharia law and an Islamic state across the whole of Nigeria. Many claim that it has links to al-Shabaab in Somalia and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb; others are less convinced that the group has become ‘internationalised’.

The UK Government is providing some support to the counter-terrorism efforts of its Nigerian counterpart against Boko Haram, but due to concerns about the human rights performance of the Nigerian security forces, it is fairly low-level in nature. Some have recently argued that the level of support should be stepped up.

Below is an illuminating exchange during a Foreign Affairs Committee evidence session with the Minister for Africa, Mark Simmonds, on 3 December 2013 as part of the Committee’s inquiry on the UK’s response to extremism and political instability in North and West Africa:

Mike Gapes: Isn’t there a problem that for perfectly understandable reasons – you referred to detention, human rights and so on – we are doing less to support Nigeria than we are doing to provide training and assistance to some other countries? For example, I understand that we are helping Mali, Kenya, Afghanistan and even Libya with training, but we are not helping Nigeria because of the concerns you have expressed. Is there not a danger that, potentially, the Nigerian military will go somewhere else and get support and training from countries that might have less human rights standards than we do?

[…]

Mark Simmonds: We are doing quite a lot. Perhaps I can outline it very briefly. The UK is using its expertise to strengthen the ability to deal with counter-terrorism. We are providing judicial training. We are providing advice on CT strategies, legal frameworks, crisis management, bomb scene management, and anti-terrorist finance training to make sure that they can follow the money. We are also providing assistance to the Office of the National Security Adviser. We are providing training to the police, the military and the judiciary. DFID runs a large stabilisation reconciliation programme in Nigeria. I have seen myself, particularly in Northern Nigeria, some of the work that is being been done to try to bring the religious communities together. Ultimately, stability and security is the only way to resolve this. So we are doing a great deal already in terms of supporting the Nigerian Government in trying to ensure that they get control of the situation in the North.

In its final report , the Foreign Affairs Committee concluded:

The UK Government wants Nigeria to defeat terrorism, but has concerns about assisting the Nigerian military. We fully understand the Government’s dilemma but consider it important that the UK do whatever it can, consistent with its respect for human rights values, to assist Nigeria in its battle against Boko Haram’s uniquely repellent brand of extremism. We ask the Government to be mindful of the importance of effective counter-terrorism co-operation between the two countries, given our strong diaspora links with Nigeria, and of the possibility of Nigeria eventually seeking security assistance elsewhere, perhaps from countries with far fewer scruples than the UK has. We note that the UK Government provides training and assistance to other armies in the developing world and seek clarification from the Government that it is satisfied that its position is entirely consistent.

A Government statement at the UN Human Rights Council in October 2013 sheds further light on its current stance. It says that it is “concerned by allegations of torture and extra judicial killings by elements of the Nigerian security forces” and “reports on the treatment of individuals detained during counter terrorism operations.”

Jon Lunn