Boko Haram and the Lessons of the LRA


By ICTJ President David Tolbert

On January 10, a particularly atrocious terrorist attack was mounted in a bustling market in the northern Nigerian town of Maiduguri: a ten-year-old girl detonated an explosive device hidden beneath her dress, killing 16 people and injuring dozens of others. The child bomber – who, witnesses claim, was unaware that she was carrying explosives at all – was sent by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram.

The next day, a similar attack was carried out in the Nigerian town of Potiskum by two ten-year-old girls with explosives strapped to their bodies. These attacks came just days after reports started trickling in of what may be Boko Haram’s deadliest terrorist attack yet: the massacre of up to 2,000 people in the town of Baga.

These were not isolated attacks. In fact, Boko Haram’s campaign of terror began long ago. The group gained global attention last year, when it abducted 276 girls from a school in Chibok; but the girls remain unrecovered, and now the “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign is all but forgotten. Estimates of the number of people Boko Haram has killed since 2009 range from 4,000 (according to international human-rights groups) to 13,000 (according to the Nigerian government).

The danger that Boko Haram poses cannot be overestimated. The group increasingly resembles the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which wreaked havoc in northern Uganda and South Sudan for decades. Like the LRA, Boko Haram represents a serious threat to regional stability. It already controls large parts of Borno province, which borders Niger, Chad, and Cameroon, and its offensive has now spilled into Cameroon, where it recently attacked a military base.

There are other parallels between the two groups, including the targeting of children. The LRA has abducted boys and girls as young as seven to be used as soldiers and sex slaves. The LRA’s recipe for child recruitment has many ingredients, but central to their twisted method is forcing children to kill members of their own family and community in gruesome ways, making it less likely they will ever be able to return home again.

Despite clear evidence of massive human rights violations, the Ugandan government and the international community were slow to respond to the LRA threat.

LRA Leader Joseph Kony and his three top commanders have been wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes and crimes against humanity since 2005. But it was only after the controversial internet campaign called “Kony 2012” made him the world’s most-wanted fugitive, raising the political stakes for Uganda and the region, that the United States sent some 200 troops to help an African Union force hunt down Kony. Three years later, he is still on the run.

And yet, the international community’s response to Boko Haram’s atrocities seems to be as slow and erratic as it was to the LRA. Absorbed in the attack against Charlie Hebdo journalists in Paris, it took days for the international community to even condemn the mass killing in Baga. Nigerian president Goodluck Johnathan sent condolences to Paris days before he publically reacted to the massacre of his own citizens. It seems no lessons were learned from the experience with the LRA.

A failure to act is both wrong and dangerous. One can rightly be concerned that political factors can get in the way of strong action to prevent further killings and to ensure accountability for the abuses committed thus far by Boko Haram. Indeed, Nigeria is an important source of oil and raw materials, with growing economic importance to the West, as well as to China, India, and other major emerging countries. Competing for lucrative contracts, global powers have in the past seemed inclined not to offend the Nigerian government by drawing attention to its inability to protect its citizens or to ensure accountability for atrocities.

But ignoring Boko Haram will only enable it to commit more atrocities. The failure to act in this case maybe another example of the international community averting its gaze from African suffering, as it has so often done in the past, most notably in Rwanda in 1994.

The ICC Prosecutor took an important step on 20 January by warning Nigeria’s government of its obligation to prosecute Boko Haram leaders for crimes that “deeply shock the conscience of the world”. While these are welcome words, the ICC should also issue a definitive timeline for Nigerian authorities to demonstrate convincingly their commitment and, perhaps more relevant, their capacity to investigate Boko Haram’s atrocities effectively. An ICC mission to the places affected by the group’s attacks would be needed to determine whether progress has been made; if Nigeria does not make sufficient progress, the ICC prosecutor should issue a proprio motu decision to open an independent investigation.

A clear course of action is required if perpetrators of Boko Haram’s atrocities are to be brought to justice sooner than it took to see Dominic Ongwen, one of the LRA’s top commanders, give himself up nine years after the ICC indicted him.

Boko Haram cannot be allowed to continue its campaign of terror, violence, and death in Nigeria and beyond. The Nigerian government and the international community must demonstrate that lessons have been learned from the case of the LRA, and act now to protect lives and ensure accountability of perpetrators.

A version of this op-ed appeared on Project Syndicate on January 31, 2015, here