Empty symbolism of UN’s blacklist of Boko Haram


Nigerian teachers at a rally in Lagos protesting against the abduction of 200 schoolgirls and the killing of 173 of their colleagues by the Islamist Boko Haram group. Getty

Osama Bin Laden must be chuckling from his grave on the ocean floor. In the wake of 9/11 he explicitly targeted Nigeria as a new front-line in his global jihad. When the UN Security Council on Thursday blacklisted Boko Haram alongside al-Qaeda and its other affiliates, Nigeria had formally arrived.

It is the latest in a series of international gestures intended to isolate the group, which provoked international outrage for a series of atrocities including abducting more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls and threatening to sell them into slavery. But its value is little more than symbolic.

Being on a UN sanctions list means travel bans, arms embargoes and asset freezes. It also means that anybody found to be providing weapons or financing to the extremist sect will be liable for blacklisting too.

But it is difficult to see the practical effect of the measures when neither the Nigerian government nor the UN are entirely sure who Boko Haram’s members are.

As one expert familiar with the group says, the Nigerian security services would struggle to name the top ten current leaders, and even then it would be a list of battle aliases and obscure imams.

Nor has a clear picture yet emerged of where the group is getting logistical and financial support, beyond the robbery of banks and army weapons depots that have been rife in Nigeria’s north east in recent years.

Boko Haram members are not banking in places where their assets might be frozen, nor is their semi-desert and mountain hinterland in Niger, Mali, Chad and northern Cameroon a place where travel bans will be effective.

According to Australia’s ambassador to the UN, the move is aimed at “drying up support” for the terrorist group. In at least one constituency – inside the group itself – it could have the opposite effect.

The latest atrocities carried out by Boko Haram have catapulted the group from relative obscurity into the big league of international terrorists. Being blacklisted alongside al-Qaeda leaves the global jihadists within the fragmented group’s mixed bag membership where they want to be.

By the same token, it can be argued that the media frenzy and mobilisation of politicians, first ladies and other celebrities over the kidnapping of the schoolgirls has played into Boko Haram’s hands. It has increased the value of their hostages and given the group international leverage.

There is another irony at play in the UN decision. It is the view of security officials across West Africa that Libya has been the single biggest source of weaponry for jihadist groups such as Boko Haram operating within the semi-desert belt of sub-Saharan Africa.

In the aftermath of the chaotic overthrow of Muammar Gadaffi in 2011, endorsed by the same UN Security Council, an extraordinary array of weaponry from his arsenal was trafficked south into the hands of extremists, with no effective international response.

This is one reason why soldiers on the front line in Nigeria’s remote north-east complain they are outgunned by Boko Haram insurgents’ more sophisticated weapons and technology.

The UN embargo on supplying weapons to the group is akin to closing the door after the proverbial horse has bolted: it has come too late.