On January 10, a particularly atrocious terrorist attack was mounted in a bustling market in the northern Nigerian town of Maiduguri: a ten-year-old girl detonated an explosive device hidden beneath her dress, killing at least 16 people and injuring dozens of others. The child bomber — who, witnesses claim, was unaware that she was carrying explosives at all — was sent by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram.
It was hardly an isolated incident. The next day, two ten-year-old girls with explosives strapped to their bodies carried out a similar attack in the Nigerian town of Potiskum. These attacks came just days after reports started trickling in of what may be Boko Haram’s deadliest terrorist attack yet: the massacre of up to 2,000 people in the town of Baga.
In fact, Boko Haram’s campaign of terror began long ago. The group gained global attention last year, when it abducted 276 girls from a school in Chibok; but many of the girls remain missing, and today the “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign is all but forgotten. Estimates of the number of people Boko Haram has killed since 2009 range from 4,000 (according to international human-rights groups) to 13,000 (according to the Nigerian government).
The danger that Boko Haram poses cannot be overestimated. In fact, the group increasingly resembles the Lord’s Resistance Army, which wreaked havoc in northern Uganda and South Sudan for decades. Like the LRA, Boko Haram represents a serious threat to regional stability. It already controls large parts of Borno province, which borders Niger, Chad, and Cameroon, and its offensive has now spilled into Cameroon, where it recently attacked a military base.
And like the LRA, Boko Haram has become infamous for targeting children, abducting boys and girls as young as seven to serve as soldiers and sex slaves. As part of its recruitment strategy, its members often force the children to kill members of their own families and communities in gruesome ways, to ensure that returning home does not seem like an option.
Despite clear evidence of massive human-rights violations, the Ugandan government and the international community were slow to respond to the LRA threat. Indeed, though LRA Leader Joseph Kony and his three top commanders have been wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes and crimes against humanity since 2005, it was only after the “Kony 2012” internet campaign made him the world’s most-wanted fugitive that the United States sent about 200 troops to help an African Union force hunt him down. Three years later, he remains on the run.
The international response to Boko Haram’s atrocities seems to be equally slow and erratic. The international community, focused on the attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, took days to condemn the mass slaughter in Baga. Even Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan sent condolences to Paris days before he responded publicly to the massacre of his own citizens.
This failure to act — not only to prevent further attacks, but also to ensure accountability for past atrocities — is both wrong and dangerous. And there is good reason to believe that the reason for it is political. After all, Nigeria is an important source of oil and raw materials, with growing economic value to the West, as well as to China, India, and other major emerging countries. Competing for lucrative contracts, global powers have preferred to avoid offending Nigeria’s government by drawing attention to its inability to protect its citizens or hold criminals accountable.
But ignoring Boko Haram will only enable it to commit more atrocities. In this sense, the silence could be another example of the international community averting its gaze from African suffering, as it has done so often in the past, most notably in Rwanda in 1994.
The ICC prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, took an important step on January 20, when she issued a statement reminding Nigeria’s government of its obligation to prosecute Boko Haram’s leaders for crimes that “deeply shock the conscience of humanity.” The ICC should now issue a definitive timeline for Nigerian authorities to demonstrate convincingly their commitment and, perhaps more important, their capacity to investigate Boko Haram’s atrocities effectively. An ICC mission to the sites of Boko Haram’s attacks would need to determine whether Nigeria has made progress; if it has not, the ICC prosecutor should issue a proprio motu decision to open an independent investigation.
Boko Haram cannot be allowed to continue its campaign of terror, violence, and death in Nigeria and beyond. Nigeria’s government and the international community must learn the lessons of the LRA and act immediately to save lives and bring perpetrators to justice.
–Project Syndicate, 2015
David Tolbert is President of the International Center for Transitional Justice.