After Kidnappings, Congress Casts A Sharper Gaze On Nigeria And Boko Haram

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks during a floor debate on the Nigerian girls CREDIT: C-SPAN
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks during a floor debate on the Nigerian girls CREDIT: C-SPAN

One month after the kidnapping of hundreds of girls caught the world’s attention, Congress met to call for greater American involvement in countering Nigerian extremist group Boko Haram. The floor debate on Wednesday is just one of the ways in which Congress now appears to be casting a sharper focus on the terrorist organization and Nigeria writ large.

Boko Haram, whose colloquial name roughly translates to “Western education is sinful,” has attacked schools, churches, mosques, and marketplaces over the past five years with aims to impose its version of Islamic law on Nigeria. The abduction of more than 300 school-aged girls from a government school in northern Nigeria on April 14 eventually led to an international outcry for the Nigerian government to take action, rallying around the slogan #BringBackOurGirls. The story took weeks to surface in the international press, and the surge in interest around the kidnappings lasted only about one week before dropping off.

On Wednesday, the House held a debate on the House floor on how to reverse this trend. “We join together to say to those girls held in captivity in Nigeria and around the world we will not abandon you; we will stand up for you until justice is done,” said Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) in her speech on the House floor on Tuesday. During the amicable debate, representatives from both parties emphasized the importance of international condemnation of Boko Haram. Calling for more extensive U.S. action, Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, stated two goals: “In the near-term, seeing these girls rescued. And in the long-term, rendering Boko Haram unable to threaten the region.”

Representatives also highlighted the difficulties of countering Boko Haram in the face of an often ineffective Nigerian government. Amnesty International reported on May 9 that the Nigerian government knew about the kidnapping threat hours before it occurred. In 2013, the Nigerian military “engaged in the indiscriminate arrest, detention, torture and extra-judicial killing of those suspected to be supporters or members of the Islamist group,” according to Human Rights Watch. “One of our major challenges is working with the Nigerian military itself,” remarked Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the ranking member on Foreign Affairs. “Its approach in northern Nigeria has often alienated the very population that could be providing valuable information about Boko Haram’s activities.”

Following the debate, the House approved by voice vote a brief resolution condemning the abduction. The resolution “condemns Boko Haram for its attacks on civilian targets, including schools, mosques, churches, villages, and agricultural centers,” while also encouraging “the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USDA) to continue supporting initiatives that promote the human rights of women and girls in Nigeria.”

Though there was mostly agreement on the floor of the House on Wednesday, the debate came at a time when domestic politics are edging their way into the narrative. “We should have listed Boko Haram earlier,” said Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX), echoing several of his colleagues quoted in an article faulting former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the delay. “Instead we worried about diplomatic relations.” The State Department waited to classify the group as a terrorist organization until November 2013 in an effort to avoid legitimizing the group. In an interview with the BBC, Nnamdi Obasi, a Nigerian analyst with the International Crisis Group, claimed listing Boko Haram earlier “could also further radicalize the movement and push it to strengthen international linkages with other Islamist groups.”

Separately, members of the House also proposed three amendments to the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act related to Boko Haram, which are cleared for debate on the floor. The amendments call on the Secretary of Defense to inform congress of developments in Nigeria and devise a strategy for assisting Nigeria’s government in countering Boko Haram.

Two of the amendments, introduced by Jackson Lee (D-TX) and Robin Kelly (D-IL), call for a report no later than 90 days after the enactment of the National Defense Authorization Act. The other amendment, introduced by Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), suggests that the United States should work with Nigeria’s neighbors to counter Boko Haram’s cross-border activity. All three passed through a voice vote on Wednesday night.

The United States has already sent military and intelligence advisers to work with Nigeria to find the girls, though the Obama administration claimed the advisers would not act as a military force. On Wednesday afternoon, the White House announced that an additional 80 military personnel were being sent to Chad to aid in the search across the border in Nigeria.