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Abduction of Nigerian girls demands aid rethink

By Anthony Bergin and Daniel Grant

Nigeria's president Goodluck Jonathan has admitted that he still does not know where more than 200 abducted girls are being held after they were taken three weeks ago by a militant Islamist group.

The group is known as Boko Haram, whose name means "western education is forbidden". Gordon Brown, the former UK prime minister, has called on the British government to provide military assistance to free the girls.

On Friday the US government said it would aid Nigeria in the search, though it didn't specify what form that aid would take. The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, said getting the girls back was imperative because this "is not just an act of terrorism. It's a massive human trafficking moment and grotesque."

Overnight the BBC reported that militant leader Abubakar Shekau sent a video, obtained by the AFP news agency, in which he said for the first time that his group had taken the girls, and that the girls shouldn't have been in school, but rather should get married. The Boko Haram leader didn't state the number of girls abducted, nor where they are now.

Last week, a bombing in the Nigerian capital Abuja killed 19, on top of 75 killed there two weeks ago. Boko Haram claimed responsibility. More than 1500 people have already died in attacks attributed to the Islamist group in Nigeria this year.

These terrorist acts remind us that there's now a growing threat of Islamist insurgency spreading from the Sahel and the Horn of Africa into sub-Saharan Africa.

Fragile states in east and west Africa have been struggling to cope with the ruthless wave of international terrorism, which is now bordering on insurgency in some place. (In some places it started as an insurgency and morphed or was corrupted by international terrorism).

This has the capacity to do serious damage not only to these societies, but to Australia's growing interests in sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, the Sahel becomes the swamp from which the global jihadis can train, indoctrinate and strike out around the world.

The jihadi export countries include Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania (to a lesser extent), and Libya and Egypt. Most of the fighters and even the leadership of these groups includes Nigerians and Somalis.

Kenya is an increasingly attractive jihadi target. Nigeria's getting out of hand in parts of the country. Yemen isn't an African country, but it does have very important and historic links to east Africa, particularly radicalised hotbeds like Somalia.   

Australia should step up our meagre efforts and assist here. The Abbott Government amalgamated the development assistance agency AusAid into the Foreign Affairs department to ensure our aid efforts are more closely aligned with our foreign policy goals. While we've got a range of humanitarian goals across sub-Saharan Africa, countering Islamist militancy should be accorded a higher priority.

It was useful that Foreign Minister Julie Bishop recently announced a $10 million aid package to support state building efforts in Somalia.

But in the context of our shrinking aid budget we need to remain clear about Australia's policy priorities in Africa: we shouldn't be wasting scarce funds that could be going to wage political warfare for the hearts of minds of those Africans turning to Islamist extremism.

This year we're giving roughly $230 million in assistance to sub-Saharan Africa (down from $385 million last year). We should be spending our African aid budget in those countries threatened by jihadist groups and where countries are lacking the resources to fund the necessary capabilities to defeat terrorist groups.

We should focus on African nation-building in those front-line states as part of a co-ordinated strategy worked out with all other agencies of government, including defence and our intelligence community to counter Islamist militancy in Africa: our foreign aid should be seen as the soft end of counterterrorism.

At the heart of the appeal of radicalism is a failed relationship between state and citizen. We should sponsor educational institutions that compete with radical messages emitted from foreign funded educational institutions. We've done that in Indonesia.

It's only worthwhile paying for education if students' safety can be assured, so we need to partner in security sector reform, military training, and forensic specialists. (Our federal police have a limited presence in Africa).

Promoting professionalism among police and custodial service officers might prevent Africa's prisons from becoming incubators of radicalism, as has occurred in other regions. This doesn't mean that in every case counterterrorism should trump all other causes for our foreign aid.

But by committing to partnership in these areas we can make a modest contribution to building Africa's resilience to the forces of international terrorism. It will also require us to defer or be highly co-ordinated with other larger aid donors.

A more secure Africa is one in which Australian engagement can flourish: we should increase our contribution to African counterterrorism through aid, as well as through police and military assistance programs.

Anthony Bergin is the deputy director at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. View his full profile here. Daniel Grant is a researcher at ASPI. 

Originally published by: ABC The Drum on 06 May 2014