Boko Haram Tops the Agenda of Nigeria President’s Visit to the White House

On Monday, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari arrived in the United States for his first Presidential visit to D.C. President Buhari’s visit comes just seven weeks after an historic electoral victory over incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan, which marked the nation’s first successful and peaceful transition of power from an incumbent to an opposition party.

This success took center stage as President Obama sat down with President Buhari on Monday to commend him on this achievement.  But looming over Buhari’s visit and his recent electoral victory, is Boko Haram’s renewed bloody campaign.

A surge in Boko Haram attacks has claimed the lives of more than 625 people since Buhari’s ascent to power seven weeks ago.  A series of high-profile and gruesome attacks by the group has not only demonstrated their resilience despite the increased presence and funding for multi-national security forces, but also an expansion of their efforts into neighboring countries and new regions of Nigeria, including cities in the middle of the country.

For those that have studied the progression and movements of Boko Haram, this new resurgence does not come as a surprise. Speaking with the Washington Post, Peter Lewis, the head of the African Studies Department at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies stated “it’s difficult to identify an endgame with Boko Haram. One characteristic they’ve shown over time is an ability to adapt to circumstance…[moreover] Boko Haram is not one unified coordinated organization. They are a series of factions with different leaders and different armed groups.”

Dr. John Campbell of the Council for Foreign Relations points to an even longer trend of violent extremism revival within the region. “It is difficult to see how Boko Haram will be defeated. In the past, other millenarian religious movements in northern Nigeria have burned themselves out only to reappearing in different forms because the rebellions’ social and economic drivers have never been addressed.”

And as we have seen in the past, Boko Haram has been thought to be defeated only to come back stronger than before. In 2011, two years after its leader, Mohammad Yusuf, and 800 of its members were killed in confrontations with police, the group went underground, only to factionalize and reemerge more radical and well supplied with the bombing of the UN building in Abuja.

And while the stage is set for renewed relations with a special focus on expanding security cooperation between the US and Nigeria, there has been little spoken about the level and longevity of commitment this will require. During his weeklong visit, President Buhari will meet with President Obama, members of his cabinet, and Congressional leaders to discuss renewed bilateral cooperation after relations soured under the previous President Goodluck Jonathan over credible allegations of human rights abuses perpetrated by the Nigerian military. Discussions are expected to cover a range of topics from electrical power development and the Africa Growth and Opporutnities Act (AGOA) to the repeal of anti-gay legislation and security cooperation in efforts to counter Boko Haram.

Some have questioned the timing of the visit, suggesting it was a corrective measure after the Obama Administration came under fire for announcing he would be visiting Kenya and Ethiopia, countries with spotty human rights records and allegations of election fraud, over Nigeria in his upcoming trip to Africa. In a briefing with the press on Friday, Grant Harris, senior director for Africa at the National Security Council contends that it was the historic Nigerian election that prompted such a unprecedented action of extending an invitation to President Buhari less than two months after he has taken office. “And our view was that we needed to have this occur as soon as possible, and that we would also want to maximize this opportunity to have him in Washington with his advisers,” said Harris.

Harris referenced visits with Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey. These meetings he said would not have been possible without a week-long visit to Washington and demonstrate the Administration’s commitment to renewed relations with Nigeria.

Improved relations between the most populous country in Africa and the USA may help Nigeria fight its insurgency more effectively, but only to the extent that the relationship encourages a more holistic response to the Boko Haram insurgency–and not one focused exclusively on the battlefield.  This insurgency will only end when there are real and robust attempts to tackle what is at the root of Boko Haram’s insurgency: political and economic marginalization, corruption, inequality, and abuses committed by political elites and military personnel without recourse. While this visit might not yield any substantial initiatives or agreements in the short term, ideally this initial diplomatic visit could serve to more clearly define the long-term, shared work to be done eradicating the conditions that bring about groups like Boko Haram.