Nigerian ambassador Adebowale Adefuye: Radical Islamists cannot be defeated by military means alone

Recent events unfolding across the Islamic world underscore the fact that we live in challenging and unpredictable times. Governments can fall in weeks. Embassy compounds built like fortresses can be breached in hours. With the third-largest population of Muslims in the world, Nigeria has a stake in these wide-reaching developments. 

Our government is working hard to defeat the motley band of criminals popularly known as Boko Haram, a group that is likely to try to capitalize on the recent wave of unrest. In order to effectively combat Boko Haram, we need American help to be complementary — not contradictory — to our own efforts. The current well-intentioned efforts by a few members of Congress to classify the Boko Haram as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) actually risk deepening and entrenching the Boko Haram movement, thereby endangering more lives.

The campaign of violence waged by Boko Haram across Nigeria has been tragic. The government is responding to this challenge, and the people of Nigeria, both Muslims and Christians, are galvanized against this threat. Above all, we are taking a balanced approach: using military means to root out terrorists and bring them to justice, while also recognizing the need for dialogue with local leaders and affected populations. As we’ve learned from our long experience with insurgents in the Niger Delta, the fight cannot be won on the battlefield alone. Our partners in the United States have also recognized this, and the U.S.-Nigeria Binational Commission has already made great strides in advancing a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy for Nigeria and supporting the civil affairs capacity of our military. 

Unlike other jihadist organizations, Boko Haram is a domestic group with domestic aims. Comprising myriad local splinter groups, Boko Haram has very little in terms of central organization, lacks funding, and it is not at all consistent in its aims. While much media attention has been focused on the politicized “Muslims vs. Christians” narrative, the truth is that Boko Haram’s violence has targeted Muslims as well as Christians. Much of Boko Haram consists of opportunistic thugs and hooligans.

Our allies in Congress must not mistake Boko Haram for something that it isn’t, lest this approach give rise to unintended and counterproductive outcomes. Nigeria and the United States have already worked together to identify and designate Boko Haram’s known “leaders” as individual terrorists, which has been instrumental in weakening what little organizational structure exists. 

My government has arrested scores of Boko Haram leaders using human and covert intelligence. We have strengthened our security systems and maintain a constructive dialogue with influential local leaders. All 250-plus ethnic groups in Nigeria are unified in opposition to Boko Haram. 

Contrary to providing substantive tools for defeating Boko Haram, a FTO designation, with its implications on all financial flows, risks stymieing desperately needed humanitarian and commercial activity. Ironically, aid destined for northern Nigeria, where poverty and lack of opportunity creates fertile soil for Boko Haram’s recruitment, is the most likely to be hindered. Dangerous opportunists would seek to fill this development vacuum and portray the U.S. effort as retaliation against Muslims in Nigeria’s north.  

More importantly, recognition through FTO designation by a sovereign the size and stature of the United States would give Boko Haram the title they seek and status they desire, stimulating a fundraising effort that has not yet been attainable from their current perch in northern Nigeria.

Make no mistake — Nigeria will continue to collaborate with the United States in the fight against Boko Haram. Yet a unilateral designation of the group as an FTO by the United States would risk undercutting our shared goal of a secure and prosperous Nigeria.

Adefuye is the Federal Republic of Nigeria’s ambassador to the United States.