What country is already larger (by population) than Russia and expected to be larger than the U.S. in thirty years, runs the world’s second most prolific film industry, has the world’s tenth-largest oil reserve and ninth-largest natural gas reserve, is home to some of the world’s most exciting, up-by-your-bootstraps tech entrepreneurs, is teetering on the edge of functional democracy . . . and is existentially threatened by an Islamist militant group every bit as backward and threatening as ISIS?
The answer is Nigeria, of course. Boko Haram, the still-not-well-known subject of the short-lived “Bring Back Our Girls” viral campaign, is ruthless, anti-Western and anti-modern (its name means “Western education is forbidden”), and surprisingly durable (it’s been around since 2002 — before the fall of Saddam!). They control a territory rivaling that controlled by ISIS, around the size of west Virginia. They have, perhaps, 10,000 core members and another 10,000 auxiliaries.
How much outside funding and aid they receive is unknown. But the organization is smart and resourceful: where ISIS kidnaps people to make gruesome torture videos, Boko Haram funds itself with ransom money (as well as other organized crime). It pays its soldiers, and it pays them bonuses when they capture weapons. But like any hardcore ideological militia, it both profits from and glorifies brutality: suicide bombing is a common tactic, but the group is also not above using children as bomb delivery systems. The group’s violent attacks have displaced 1.5 million people — numbers somewhat less than, but comparable to, those displaced in the Iraq war.
Nigerian forces have struggled to contain and turn back the threat, with at best mixed results. The group has expanded its reach, pushing into Cameroon and Chad and pledging allegiance to ISIS. The government postponed planned elections for six weeks, citing the massive displacement and insecurity of many voters, though the opposition party suggests this might be mere political opportunism. Things are chaotic enough, though, that last week a mob beat a teenage girl to death when they suspected her of being a Boko Haram suicide bomber.
The Nigerian army is undersupplied, which leads to frequent routs in which soldiers simply run away from advancing Boko Haram forces, which often have better weaponry and even military vehicles. Nigeria’s neighbors have formed a sizable military task force to push back the insurgent group, but only in limited areas. Those forces have begun an air and ground offensive, but the Nigerian government has asked outside forces to stay out of Nigeria and let the army handle Boko Haram within its borders.
In short, everything is on the brink in one of the largest, most significant countries in the world… but Americans know next to nothing about it. In a way, this is good — at least John McCain has not yet suggested an invasion. But it feels curious, after more than a decade of Middle East turmoil directly related to a major attack on American soil and two profoundly ill-conceived American attacks on other countries — not counting Libya, Pakistan, Yemen, and other places we’ve put our hand in — to see a major insurgency largely unrelated to our actions or what we conceive of as our interests.
We know so little about it, and yet it’s potentially of enormous consequence. One possibility is that while we are all pondering ISIS, al-Qaeda, and now perhaps al-Shabaab, another radical Islamist insurgency altogether will destabilize, if not take over, a large nation that was on track to become the economic powerhouse of western Africa. Another possibility is that Nigeria or some alliance of its neighbors or both will crush (or at least contain) Boko Haram. It is even possible that out of this crisis will emerge a new set of security relationships among several African nations whose armies will have won a hard war against a bloody enemy. It is possible that this is a defining moment in world history, and we have only the dimmest understanding of it. (Not to point fingers — I know little about Nigeria beyond what I learned writing this post.)
I don’t know what to make of any of that. I don’t know what to do about any of that. But it seems important.