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Why Boko Haram’s reign of terror has been tough to track

January 13, 2015 at 6:35 PM EDT
In early January, Boko Haram militants attacked the remote northern Nigerian town of Baga, but it was days before reports of the massacre got out, with estimated death tolls ranging from 150 to 2,000. Gwen Ifill speaks with Nii Akuetteh of the African Immigrant Caucus about disturbing reports about young girls being used as bombers and how recent violence will affect Nigeria’s upcoming elections.
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GWEN IFILL: Even as the world’s attention has been focused on missing planes in the Java Sea and terror attacks in Paris, another disaster has been unfolding, steadily, but more quietly, in the remote northeast region of Nigeria.

There, the terrorist group Boko Haram has been on the rampage, conducting mass kidnappings and waging bloody attacks on civilians. On January 3, militants attacked the northern town of Baga and surrounding areas. But word was slow to get out. Residents began to flee the region, and it wasn’t until several days later that reports of death tolls ranging from hundreds to as many as 2,000 people got the world’s attention.

The Nigerian military has put the number much lower, closer to 150. But Amnesty International has called it possibly the deadliest massacre in Boko Haram’s history that could mark a disturbing and bloody escalation.

For more on the recent attacks and the government response, I’m joined by Nii Akuetteh of the African Immigrant Caucus, an organization aimed at increasing political influence of the African diaspora. His career has focused on fostering relationships between the U.S. and African nations.

Welcome.

NII AKUETTEH, African Immigrant Caucus: Thank you very much.

GWEN IFILL: What is it about what has happened in Baga that has taken so long to get out? What has been the delay?

NII AKUETTEH: I think, for one thing, it is — this most recent attack is in a remote area. It took time for people to get out.

Also, Boko Haram’s attacks have destabilized and spread fear in the whole area. So that is part of it. I think that’s why it took that long. Of course, we don’t have many journalists in the area to report on it.

GWEN IFILL: And, so, the numbers are all over the map. What are we to believe, and why not take the government’s word that the numbers are much lower than that?

NII AKUETTEH: Well, because, I mean, just on paper, you can see that it’s in the government’s interest to give the impression that it’s not as bad.

But, also, there was a case a few months ago where the government actually claimed that they were negotiating and knew where the Chibok girls were, and that turned out to be false. So I think it is prudent for anybody to say, let’s get some other sources confirming the numbers before we believe it.

GWEN IFILL: You mentioned the Chibok girls, the girls, the 200 schoolgirls who were kidnapped who have not been heard from, as far as we know, since, except that now we’re hearing disturbing reports about young girls being use as explosives, having explosives strapped to them and becoming suicide bombers.

Do we think there’s a connection in all of that?

NII AKUETTEH: I think there is.

It fits the part of what Boko Haram does. And I think it’s important to understand that Boko Haram has been around for about 12 years as an organization. They became particularly violent and caught the world’s attention five years ago. So they have been rampaging for five years.

And, yes, this is part of what they do, do. Less than a week ago, there was that story of a 10-year-old who was sent into the market strapped with explosives, and then she was noticed, but it exploded. I think what came before is even more important. There was another story of a girl of about the same age who then got frightened and wouldn’t detonate the explosives.

So there is speculation that this one was detonated remotely. And the other thing is Boko Haram has not confined its attacks to just that area of Northeastern Nigeria. They have hit Abuja. They have made forays into Cameroon, and actually had battles with the Cameroonian air force.

So, Boko Haram started out as a Nigerian problem. It is now actually a West African problem, and, I dare say, a global problem.

GWEN IFILL: You say it’s a global problem. So, what has been the U.S. role in helping or at least in any way negotiating with Nigeria on their behalf to help attack this problem?

NII AKUETTEH: I think, all along, the U.S. has — the U.S. actually and Nigeria are used — have had a close relationship.

GWEN IFILL: Right.

NII AKUETTEH: So, of course, when Boko Haram became an issue, they said, yes, we support you, we will help you.

But, as an observer of U.S.-African relations, I have not been impressed with how much help I think Nigeria should get, even before the Chibok girls were kidnapped in April.

GWEN IFILL: Why do you think that is?

NII AKUETTEH: It’s a good question.

You know, I think sometimes there are people who think that Nigeria ought to be able to deal with this by itself. Also, if you look at foreign — U.S. foreign policy cutting across several administrations, Africa always gets the short end of the stick.

GWEN IFILL: But Nigeria is a prosperous country.

NII AKUETTEH: Well, it is by certain standards. In fact, it recently became the biggest economy in Africa.

GWEN IFILL: Right.

NII AKUETTEH: But it’s still a very underdeveloped country.

Most Nigerians are very poor by any measure. And, therefore, it’s also a matter of technical military assistance and intelligence to deal with the issue. Now, global powers actually stepped in, in May, when, you know, the first lady and others said, we need to help find the girls.

And they promised that they are cooperating with the Nigerians. So, again, I have been disappointed that, even with their help, the problem has not been contained.

GWEN IFILL: There are elections coming up, presidential elections, in the next month. Do you think that what we see unfolding here with Boko Haram could or could not affect the outcome?

NII AKUETTEH: Oh, I am absolutely convinced that it will affect the outcome.

For one thing, it is not easy to — it’s not hard to imagine that it will be difficult to vote in those areas because of the fear, because of the devastation. But we also know…

GWEN IFILL: And the security problem.

NII AKUETTEH: That’s right.

We also know that such jihadist groups, they particularly attack democratic governance because some of them see it as sacrilegious. They want a theocracy. And so they don’t want people to vote.

So it’s anticipated that Boko Haram will not be happy with the elections. Now, there will be repercussions for that, because somebody who loses will — might say, because we didn’t vote in that area, it wasn’t a fair vote.

So, yes, it’s causing a lot of anxiety. And Boko Haram’s operations are casting a shadow over the Nigerian elections next month.

GWEN IFILL: Nii Akuetteh, among other things, former director of Africa Action, thank you very much.

NII AKUETTEH: It’s a pleasure. Thanks for having me.

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