Monday, November 11, 2013

Boko Haram: Who's afraid of Foreign Terrorist Organisation designation?

Over two years after Boko Haram attacked the UN headquarters in Abuja, the question of whether the United States should designate them as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation has returned.

African Arguments has published a good assessment of the situation by Christopher O’Connor of the National Endowment for Democracy.

He weighs the pros and cons of such a designation; there is a great desire from some quarters of Nigerian society for the US to do so, it would be a marked gesture for the US to “call a spade a spade”. 

But there has also been a concerted lobbying attempt form foreign observers to hold off on making a full declaration of FTO status. These observers say, and O’Connor agrees, that it will make a peace settlement harder.

Last year the US Department of State compromised. Instead of putting full FTO status before Congress (which Congress would have likely approved), it placed sanctions on key Boko Haram and splinter group Ansaru leaders as individuals

Congress is now looking to raise thequestion of FTO designation again, after another spate of violence.

But I think the African Arguments piece has missed a key point about FTO designation.

On the face of it, its hard to see why Boko Haram aren't on the list already. If organisations like Kahane Chai and Aum Shinrikyo are on it, why would the Obama administration shy away from Boko Haram?

Could it really have been that the objections of a well meaning group of Nigeria watchers was sufficient to prevent the White House pursuing Foreign Terrorist Organisation designation for Boko Haram?

The US Department of State might have had to listen to the wishes of another party who has a say in this –the Nigerian government themselves.

Why would the Federal Government of Nigeria object to the US designating Boko Haram as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation? 

As O’Connor says, FTO designation is not just a matter of calling a spade a spade. It is a legal definition that triggers a list of things that would suddenly come under the purview of the US Congress, among them is tight restrictions on international funding of the group.

Its not hard to see why the Government will not be entirely enthusiastic about this renewed question of FTO designation. What effect would it have on the government's plan for an "amnesty" for Boko Haram? The plan is along the same lines as it abated militants in the oil producing south, ie shovel cash at them and hope the problem will go away.

Wouldn't it scupper it completely?

Many people have questioned if this amnesty will be effective in its stated aims. They warn the river of cash could be diverted. But with a serious split in the ruling party troubling the PDP as the 2015 elections loom, who's to say that the stated aims are what they say they are?

The Nigerian government really hasn't had a lot to say on the record about Foreign Terrorist Organisation status. 

Last year, in one of the only public pronouncements on the FTO matter by a Jonathan-administration insider, then Ambassador to the US Adebowale Adefuye indicated to the Nigerian media that the Federal Government itself was resisting the designation.

Reports quoted him as saying designation might “add to Nigerians woes when travelling through international airports”.

Longtime watchers of Nigerian politics know this is a kind of dog-whistle phrase. Something that might impede travelling through airports is certainly eye-catching to Nigeria’s big men.

Designation of FTO status would clearly necessitate closer scrutiny of financial flows in and out of Nigeria. This would not only be in connection with Boko Haram specifically, but almost certainly have to take in Nigeria in general.

Put it this way:

The question is not what effect designation would or would not have on Boko Haram.

The real question is: “who is it moving the most suspect money in and out of Nigeria; Boko Haram or… who?”

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