On February 19th, a French family of 7 was kidnapped in the north of Cameroon, by the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram. The case has drawn a significant amount of international attention and the French, Cameroonian and Nigerian governments are all taking active steps towards finding them. The fact that 4 of the 7 are children is certainly putting the pressure on.
French Minister of Foreign Affairs Laurent Fabius is off to Nigeria and Cameroon this week to meet with both presidents (I can’t find the official itinerary on the Ministry’s website but he tweeted it last week). So here’s a bit of background/personal analysis.
Who is Boko Haram?
There were some reports that identified Ansaru as the group responsible for the kidnapping – I think it’s fairly certain at this point that it was Boko Haram and not Ansaru, although the latter has done a few kidnapping of its own recently and is reported to be an offshoot of Boko Haram.
So, who the heck is Boko Haram? As the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) explains,
Boko Haram is an Islamic sect that believes politics in northern Nigeria has been seized by a group of corrupt, false Muslims. It wants to wage a war against them, and the Federal Republic of Nigeria generally, to create a “pure” Islamic state ruled by sharia law.
I won’t go into details here, but Boko Haram’s actions in Nigeria should be understood in context. In other words, the group has taken advantage of an already volatile and very complicated situation that predates Boko Haram. I would recommend this report by the International Crisis Group on curbing the violence in Jos for an in-depth analysis of that context.
Nevertheless, it is becoming increasingly apparent that Boko Haram is nurturing links with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and some are saying that the former are providing the latter with a safe haven in Nigeria. This is definitely raising Boko Haram’s visibility internationally and increasing international attention on this group.
France & Nigeria – background
I think it’s fair to say that France and Nigeria haven’t been the best of buds historically, although relations are much better now than they have been in the past.
One of the biggest sticking points in the French-Nigerian relationship has been France’s involvement in the Biafran civil war (1967-1970). France heavily armed the Biafran secessionists as they saw the break-up of Nigeria as beneficial to France’s interests in sub-Saharan Africa. This was denied for years by the French but is now a well-established fact.
While the Biafran secessionist movement failed, Nigeria still presents an affront to francophonie in Africa, with some 160 million English speakers. This tension is evident in Cameroon, which has also vacillated between English and French, with the north of Cameroon (closest to Nigeria) tending to be anglophone and the south francophone.
However, relations have been much better, especially since 2008, when then-Nigerian President Yar’Adua came to France on an official visit. During this visit, the two countries established a “strategic partnership” which includes cooperation in 4 key areas: 1) economic/energy; 2) cultural and technical; 3) judicial; and 4) military and defense. Current Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan was in Paris just last month, and given the extensive involvement of both countries in Mali, they are working closely together.
So what will happen next?
Stakes in this case are relatively high. It’s a high-profile, involves children and is in the context of the “War of Terror.” Moreover, it’s now believed that hostages recently captured by Ansaru have been killed – it’s legitimate to think that the Boko Haram hostages may suffer the same fate.
France has already said that it was not going to be negotiating for the release of the hostages, with Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian stating that France would “use all (other) possible means to ensure that these and other (French) hostages are freed.“
French President Francois Hollande was also quoted in Le Monde saying “Je vois surtout l’implantation d’un groupe terroriste, et c’est suffisamment inquiétant pour nous mobiliser” (in English: “I see mostly the implantation of a terrorist group, and that is sufficiently worrying for us to mobilize“).
With regards to preventing terrorism in Africa, France’s livre blanc – which outlines France’s overarching military policy (from 2008), says the following:
À cet égard, l’Afrique viendra au premier rang de notre stratégie de prévention pour les quinze ans à venir. Les problèmes de sécurité des pays africains intéressent, directement et indirectement, la France et l’Europe, qu’ils s’agisse des risques de conflits, régionaux ou interethniques, du développement du terrorisme dans les États de la zone sahélienne ou des périls qui menacent leur stabilité. S’ils le souhaitent, la France et l’Europe peuvent apporter des contributions à leurs efforts.
Which roughly translates to:
In this regard, Africa will come first in our prevention strategy for the next fifteen years. The security challenges faced by African countries concern, directly and indirectly, France and Europe, whether talking about risks of conflicts, regional or inter-ethnic, about the development of terrorism in countries in the Sahel or about threats to stability. If they so wish, France and Europe can contribute to their efforts.
France has thus far had very limited military and defense in anglophone African countries – some exceptions to France’s almost complete focus on francophone Africa includes military cooperation accords with Malawi and Zimbabwe (see my post here for a complete list). Given this and France’s rocky past with Nigeria, it will be interesting to see what kind of assistance France ends up providing to Nigeria in this regard – not only just with regards to those specific hostages, but more generally speaking with regards to fighting terrorism in the region.
On a side note, France signed a defense agreement with Cameroon in 1974, which enables Cameroon to request military help from France if they so wish. In that event, France could of course deny but given France’s interests in maintaining close links with Cameroon, it is likely they would intervene in some capacity. Although the hostages are being held in Nigeria, the increasing cross-border attacks by Boko Haram and others could lead the French to provide some sort of assistance in the neighboring regions.
Apologies for the long hiatus – work has been a bit crazy and intense lately. Also, I’ve decided to change themes on my blog. I really liked the original theme but it wasn’t working out too well for this type of blog. I hope you like it!
Update 12 March: the first version of this post erroneously stated that Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan was in Paris last week; he was there last month.