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Handling Boko Haram: Nigeria's Goodluck Jonathan in denial about his own Army

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Gonzalo Fuentes/REUTERS

(Read caption) Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan speaks at a news conference following the African Security Summit at the Elysee Palace in Paris, May 17, 2014.

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President Jonathan delivered an important speech at the “Regional Summit on Security in Nigeria” held in Paris on May 17, 2014.

The speech is worth a close reading because it provides the Jonathan administration’s “narrative” on Boko Haram, on international terrorism, and on the school girl kidnappings. 

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Predictably, President Jonathan firmly places the Boko Haram insurgency in “the new frontier of the global war of terrorism…” narrative. He says that Boko Haram “…is not anymore a challenge to Nigeria alone; it is a threat to each and every one of us in this room.”

Yet, only weeks ago the Nigerian government was claiming that Boko Haram was marginalized in the far northeast of Nigeria. Jonathan in fact made reference to the Chibok schoolgirl kidnapping only two weeks after the event.

Early on, military spokesmen falsely claimed to have rescued most of the girls. According to Nigerian media, Jonathan’s wife at one point even suggested that the kidnapping was a hoax perpetrated by the president’s political enemies in the runup to the 2015 elections.

The Jonathan administration’s shift from Boko Haram as a marginal concern to be addressed primarily by local and state governments to an aspect of a worldwide threat -- including calling for the United Nations to blacklist it as a terrorist organization -- is likely a response to international and domestic pressure on behalf of the school girls and the manifest inability of the security services to find them.

In his Paris speech, Jonathan continues utterly to deny the numerous reports from credible human rights organizations and the Western media of security service human rights violations. The Nigerian security services, he says “…were directed to adhere strictly to clearly [spelled out] rules of engagement and avoid any excesses that may amount to a violation of human rights. Careful regard for human rights has always been central to our counter-terrorism strategies, resulting in the adoption of rules and procedures to protect the civilian population from excessive collateral damage.”

If only what the president says were true. Adopting “rules and procedures” is not the same thing as following them.

The New York Times and other media outlets report that the United States Department of Defense has signed an intelligence sharing agreement with Nigeria in the search for the school girls. Currently, there is a US team of experts consulting in Abuja to determine what further assistance the Nigerian government may need in the search.

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The US Africa Command (AFRICOM) is training the newly formed “Nigerian Rangers.”

Some members of Congress appear prepared to embrace Jonathan’s account that Boko Haram is the “new frontier of the war on terrorism,” which could imply more US involvement. There have already been Senate and House hearings regarding this.

Yet, even with the small steps the Obama administration has already taken, there is a huge risk that the United States will come to be identified with the Nigerian security service’s human rights violations, about which Jonathan shows no will to address.

That could be the next chapter in the utterly destructive -- and widely believed -- narrative of a US “war on Islam.”