Outrageous kidnappings show why U.S. needs better policy toward Nigeria

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An outrage against decency — the kidnapping of over 270 young girls in northeastern Nigeria by the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram — has brought Nigeria international attention, however unwanted.

The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously to hold Boko Haram accountable for crimes against humanity. Michelle Obama voiced her outrage at the grotesque kidnappings. The U.S., China, and Britain sent advisors to help locate and free the little girls. The protests inside Nigeria — led significantly by grieving mothers — have received international attention.

Moslem religious leaders from Saudi Arabia to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation have condemned the kidnappings. The Nigerian government has belatedly begun to respond, with President Goodluck Jonathan announcing that he hoped that the “kidnap of these girls will be the beginning of the end of terror in Nigeria.” The popular revulsion has yet to be translated into action on the ground, and even that is not sufficient.

The U.S. should use this moment not simply to help bring back the kidnapped young girls, but to also bring forth a comprehensive U.S. policy towards Nigeria.

In many ways, the global reaction to this tragedy seems like a throwback to the days of the Cold War. Then, Africa would get attention only when there were reports — often distorted — of communist infiltration or communist insurgencies. Only when threatened would sub-Saharan African countries sneak into the newspapers or pierce the consciousness of the White House, much less the American public.

This neglect is costly. Nigeria is not simply a poor African country plagued by Muslim terrorists who kidnap little girls. It is a country of 170 million people, one fourth of the population of Sub-Saharan Africa. It is a vital cog in security across Africa, dispatching more troops on peacekeeping missions than any other nation in the world.

This year, Nigeria was recognized as the largest economy in all of Africa. It is the largest producer of oil in Africa, and the world’s fourth leading exporter of liquid natural gas. Europe is the largest importer of its oil. For decades, it supplied the U.S. with about 10 percent of its oil, and now that number is down to about 5 percent as U.S. production expands at home. Its economy is increasingly sophisticated and diversified, with services providing an ever-higher percentage of GDP. It has 120 million cell phone subscribers. Nollywood — its burgeoning movie industry — is now ranked at about 1.5 percent of its economy and employs over a million people.

The size of the economy would earn it membership into the G-20, or other major international bodies. Nigeria is the second highest recipient of U.S. investment in Africa. And an estimated 1.5 million Nigerians and Nigerian Americans live in the U.S.

It also has the highest number of people living in extreme poverty — $1.25 a day or less — in Africa. It has a democratically elected government, but one that has been plagued by corruption.

The kidnappers of the girls, Boko Haram, pose a growing threat. Violence in the isolated and impoverished northeast is spreading. Boko Haram indicts the government for corruption and violence. It promises to enforce Sharia law across the territories. To date this year, according to United Nations figures, Boko Haram has killed more than 1,500 people. It is well funded, well organized and deadly. It will take significant international assistance and coordination to root it out.

Providing assistance in trying to save the kidnapped girls is beneficial. But the U.S. needs to have a far more comprehensive policy towards Nigeria — and sub-Saharan African in general. Nigeria is far more important to us than Ukraine is. Yet the U.S. government is fixated on Ukraine, and relatively disengaged from Nigeria. We should not need the threat posed by Boko Haram to make us realize the importance of Nigeria. Isolating and crushing Boko Haram, while engaging and helping to build Nigeria, should be a centerpiece of U.S. policy and attention.

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