This is a guest post by Ioannis Mantzikos a PhD candidate at the University of Free State, South Africa. He is currently coauthoring a book with Dr. Denise Baken on the “Transformation of Terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa,” forthcoming July 2014.
In August 2013 two British men of Nigerian descent murdered Private Lee Rigby in Woolwich, England. The incident has been treated as a terrorist attack. Prior to the incident in Woolwich, the British public generally took little notice of the prevalent insecurity in the Sahel, or the Boko Haram insurgency in northern Nigeria.
The Woolwich incident was not likely directly related to Boko Haram. It was however, a warning for British society and politicians of the continuing possibility for manifestations of home grown terrorism and radicalism, often inspired by actions abroad. No one can rule out possible future foreign connections. Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau has also threatened Britain, and British leaders, in the past.
Nigerians represent one of the largest black African groups in the United Kingdom, with over five hundred thousand people and primarily belong to the Yoruba, Igbo, and to a lesser extent, Edo ethnic groups. All three originate in southern Nigeria where Islam is a minority. Many are well-educated professionals, thus presenting an unlikely recruitment ground for anti-Western extremists such as Boko Haram.
After the incident, the House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee conducted an inquiry into the British government’s response to extremism and political instability in North and West Africa. The initial focus appeared to be on Mali, Algeria, and the Sahel, but also included the state of emergency in place in northern Nigeria. In that sense, the United Kingdom has advised the Nigerian federal government to increase its use of non-military approaches and regional collaboration to tackle the menace of Boko Haram in parts of Nigeria. In Abuja, the British high commissioner, Mr. Andrew Pocock, who spoke in Abuja at the welcome ceremony for Nigerian Chevening scholars, said: “We have already been working closely with the Nigerian government on the security agenda. There is a lot that is going on and will continue to go on.”
The British government is providing support to the counter-terrorism efforts of its Nigerian counterpart against Boko Haram, but reservations in relation to the Nigerian security services have led to a very cautious response to requests for military assistance and training. Some have recently argued that the level of support should be stepped up. However, there are voices within the British political scene advocating that the Nigerian federal government may have underplayed social and economic elements. Another concern is the conduct of the Nigerian security forces in tackling extremist violence. The UK government is very concerned not only that some civilians may be being mistreated, but that a narrative of police and army heavy-handedness (or worse) towards ordinary people in the north and north-east risks playing into Boko Haram’s hands.
Finally, the UK Department for International Development (DFID) aid program, one of the largest focused on the north, wants to deliver more direct support to poor people, help change the lives of many more girls and women and assist in closing the huge Millennium Development Goals gaps in this region. The 2011 mutual cooperation agreement entails regular meetings between selected judges and UK counterparts to exchange ideas on combating terrorism. It also includes strengthening cooperation in areas of countering and managing terrorism that involve adjudication and due process. DFID needs to implement this agreement vigorously but withdraw support if it does not deliver results.