Event Summary: ‘War in West Africa? Nigeria Ahead of the Elections’


This is a summary of an event with Christian Whiton, Sohrab Ahmari and Robin Simcox, chaired by Davis Lewin, on 24 March 2015; it reflects the views expressed by the speaker and not those of The Henry Jackson Society or its staff.

For a transcript of this event, click here

For a podcast of this event, click here

On 24 March, The Henry Jackson Society hosted a panel including Christian Whiton, former Senior Advisor at the US State Department, Sohrab Ahmari, Editorial Page Writer at The Wall Street Journal, and Robin Simcox, Research Fellow at The Henry Jackson Society.

The speakers shared their views on the significance of how the then-upcoming Presidential elections in Nigeria would affect the fight against the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram.

The elections in Nigeria

  • Nigeria faced a choice between incumbent Goodluck Jonathan and challenger Muhammadu Buhari. According to Whiton, while both candidates have said they would take on Boko Haram, Buhari has exploited Jonathan’s corruption in order to build support for Islamist governance and could potentially become a populist leader.
  • The threat posed by radical Islam meant that the West cannot afford to ignore the potential importance of the kind of elections occurring in Nigeria.

Jihadism in Africa

  • Simcox stated that Boko Haram has developed from a local threat into a regional one. It has carried out attacks not only in Nigeria, but also in Chad and Cameroon.
  • Another jihadist group operating in Nigeria is the Boko Haram offshoot, Ansaru. The groups have worked together in the past. However, Ansaru has recently distanced itself from Boko Haram due to the latter’s gratuitous use of violence.
  • The recent pledge of loyalty from Boko Haram to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is an opportunistic move which is of strategic benefit to both groups. It was a coup for ISIS: of all the jihadist groups that have pledged loyalty to its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Boko Haram is the most powerful. From Boko Haram’s point of view, it allows them to project power abroad ideologically in a way that it cannot militarily.

Economic opportunities

  • Ahrami and Whiton referred to the West remaining focused on the humanitarian challenges that Africa has long faced. However, Ahmari said nations such as China have focused on the economic opportunities. China is now Africa’s largest trading partner, yet is unconcerned about the continent’s political or economic development. Yet the US cannot presently shape events, as it lacks a coherent strategy for Africa.
  • Ahmari stated that although implementing measures for economic growth is not the answer to the problem of radicalisation, it might mitigate some of its effects. Whiton suggested that the West should direct capitals towards small and medium-sized businesses and facilitate free markets in the area.
  • Nigeria has become more prosperous in recent years and, according to Ahmari, the statist development model is partially responsible for state corruption, as it allows those in power to skim off the top and promise development that never arrives. The path forward for Nigeria is free-markets and an entrepreneurial spirit.

The future

  • Ahmari said that Africa is the continent of the future and a place where there are tremendous opportunities.
  • The West has little ability to shape events militarily in Nigeria, as it is prevented from working with the Nigerian army due to its human rights abuses. However, according to Simcox, there is more than can be done in terms of providing military training across Africa broadly.
  • The UK government has taken much-needed practical measures to stop the flow of foreign fighters into Syria and Iraq. However, Simcox said there has been some complacency in the UK over the possibility of young people leaving the country to join Boko Haram, mainly because there is a large Christian population among the Nigerian diaspora.
  • Whiton outlined the need for regional actors such as Chad, Niger, Cameroon and Nigeria to work together against Boko Haram and ISIS; and posited a more forward-looking approach from US AFRICOM – which is currently based in Stuttgart.






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