Nigeria celebrates the centenary of its unification Thursday against a backdrop of sobering violence. The milestone comes two days after militants from the radical Islamist insurgency Boko Haram attacked a secondary school in northern Nigeria, leaving at least 59 dead. A second assault came Wednesday night, near the Cameroon border, which caused at least 13 casualties and destroyed dozens of homes and businesses.
The dual raids are all the more provocative coming on the heels of a presidential declaration Monday that the government’s military campaign against the nearly five-year-old uprising is making headway, and that “no effort will be spared” to protect civilians and their property. Quite the dubious claim given President Goodluck Jonathan’s history of premature victory speeches, not to mention reports that security forces fled ahead of Boko Haram’s assault this week.
In fact, Nigeria’s war against Boko Haram looks to have done little more than ignite the insurgency thanks to its strong-armed tactics, and facilitate recruitment by isolating northern Nigerians. Which adds a dark irony to Thursday’s anniversary given that it celebrates the amalgamation of the northern and southern regions of the Republic (albeit under colonial British rule).
Enter France’s President François Hollande, who was in Abuja Thursday to mark the centenary as a guest of honor (and the only Western head of state in attendance). Hollande’s presence compounds a confusing narrative from Paris: France is purportedly hoping to scale down its Africa presence — and relinquish its “policeman” role — even as it pledges support to Nigeria’s fight against terrorism. (Here, domestic politics are no doubt coloring the president’s African outreach; with his social and economic initiatives almost universally lambasted at home, Hollande looks to be relying on a robust foreign policy to compensate.)
But even if the Elysée is willing to extend a helping hand to Abuja, it is not without some conditions. Notably an admonition of Jonathan’s aggressive tactics (and a reported request that the Nigerian leader work to reduce collateral damage) and the tacit promise of expanded economic deals, which would see France increase its oil purchases from Nigeria over the next three years, as well as boost its exports to the African country.
Yet, even with Hollande ostensibly on board, the extent of his country’s implication is questionable. France has boots on the ground in two African battlefields: Mali, where a resurgence of jihadists is making a definitive withdrawal unlikely anytime soon, and the Central African Republic, where escalating sectarian warfare has prompted Paris to extend the French mission there. The dual fronts have left France’s military coffers sparse, and public opinion dangerously negative. While the war on terror may resonate well in theory to combat Hollande’s image as an indecisive leader, putting his money (or rather France’s money) where his mouth is may prove more difficult indeed.
All this while Boko Haram takes advantage of the inefficiency of Nigeria’s security forces, amid political squabbling in Abuja, to up its game – in February alone, over 300 civilians were killed in the northern states of Adamawa, Yobe and Borno, all under a nine-month state of emergency. Sadly, while Nigerians have cause to celebrate their country’s 100th year since unification, its 101st is shaping up to be as grim as the last.