Can the US Play a Role in Rescuing the Missing Nigerian Schoolgirls?

Or is there fear that U.S. involvement in Nigeria could escalate the response from the terror group Boko Haram?

A woman seeks the release of Nigeria’s kidnapped schoolgirls during a rally May 5, 2014, in Lagos, Nigeria.
A woman seeks the release of Nigeria’s kidnapped schoolgirls during a rally May 5, 2014, in Lagos, Nigeria. PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images

“The kidnapping of hundreds of children by Boko Haram is an unconscionable crime,” said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, under enormous pressure to make commitments during a press conference at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, this past weekend. “We will do everything possible to support the Nigerian government to return these young women to their homes and hold the perpetrators to justice.”

Yet beyond recent check-ins by phone with President Barack Obama, Jonathan shows no public appetite for a partnership with the Americans—despite the heavy footprint of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) and the recent insertion of U.S. Special Forces troops in East Africa to capture warlord Joseph Kony.

In fact, the U.S. military presence in Africa is much larger than it seems, with observers pointing not only to AFRICOM as an office but also to the increased growth of forward operating bases, cooperative security sites and contingency locations peppered throughout the continent. 

But in the case of Nigeria, it won’t be that simple. There’s much more complexity to a possible U.S.-Nigerian military collaboration. The Jonathan administration worries that the known presence of American military assets and personnel could actually trigger an emboldened response from Boko Haram—with the move potentially striking a bad chord with northern Nigeria’s largely Muslim population. 

“Unfortunately, [it’s also] sovereignty. Nigeria has to invite that type of help onto their soil,” explains political economist Alton Drew to The Root. “They won’t.”

The risk is in validating the loosely al-Qaida-affiliated group should AFRICOM get involved. Obama administration officials, along with Jonathan, recognize the situation in Nigeria as being so fluid and fragile that greater U.S. involvement could spark a new regional war pitting Western interests against African-based Islamists. 

To a degree, AFRICOM is already engaging Boko Haram, with U.S. forces deploying advanced drones based in neighboring Niger to track the terrorist group’s activities. And the State Department finally took steps in November to officially designate Boko Haram as a terrorist organization, giving the Obama administration legal authority to seize its assets in an attempt to choke its financial networks. 

“The U.S. could help Nigeria improve its counterterrorism capability, from beefing up border security to improving coordination between Nigeria’s security agencies,” adds Downie. “But they are long-term fixes and will not help to resolve the immediate crisis.”

Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and regular contributor to The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine. Follow him on Twitter.