Britain is considering stepping up its military efforts to help the Nigerian government defeat Boko Haram, following a rise in terrorist activity in the country’s north-east in the past year, Jeremy Hunt has said after a visit to the region.
The UK foreign secretary said on Wednesday that he will be discussing what more the British government can do in terms of aid and military support to combat the terrorist group, warning the crisis had the potential to trigger a humanitarian catastrophe on the scale of that in Yemen.
Britain provides £240m in aid to Nigeria, of which £100m goes to the north-east, making it the second-largest donor after the US, and giving the UK a sizeable stake in what happens in the region.
Boko Haram and Islamic State in west Africa have terrorised the region for several years, but their activities came to the world’s attention when hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls were kidnapped in 2014.
British military personnel in Abuja and the wider region are giving strategic advice to Nigerian forces on how to run counterinsurgency operations, with their advice focused on combining humanitarian and military activities.
The Nigerian military has been repeatedly criticised by humanitarian groups for running brutal campaigns that make little effort to win over hearts and minds.
The 120,000-strong army is structured on very traditional lines but sends troops to highly hostile areas for as long as four years. Operating on a small budget, soldiers are often underpaid and morale is low.
Speaking on a visit to Maiduguri as part of a week-long trip to Africa, Hunt said: “It has got all the hallmarks of something that if you do not nip in the bud, it will get a lot worse. Conversely, it feels like a situation that it is something that could be dealt with if there was appropriate action by the government of Nigeria with international support.”
He said the crisis had spread to Niger, Chad and Cameroon. “There is a potential solution here … Nigeria is huge country and it is very stretched,” Hunt added.
Asked if he supported an increase in military action in the region, the UK foreign secretary said: “I think the crucial deciding factor is the willingness and enthusiasm of the Nigerian government and the Nigerian army to work closely with us – we would like to support and help them, but they are a sovereign nation and they have got to want our help.”
He said Britain wanted to bring holistic solutions, suggesting by implication that the Nigerian army has focused too heavily on militaristic solutions. “I think our approach is potentially a very significant one, because we could bring not just the British army but also DfID [the Department for International Development] and our experience in holistic solutions to these kind of situations,” Hunt added.
“This is a region of Africa that is being massively destabilised by conflict. These things can escalate quite quickly and get out of control. We know from Sri Lanka that Daesh [Isis] are looking to make their presence felt now they have lost their territory. We have to be vigilant.”
He said Sri Lanka was not on anyone’s radar, and showed how threats can escalate. Nigeria was “an area where all the warning signs are there”, he said, adding that not all the conflict was driven by religion.
“The feedback I got from NGOs on the ground is that lack of trust between the authorities and local people is one of the things that is fuelling the problem at the moment. The Nigerian army strategy is largely about herding people into towns and saying if you are not in a secure area, we are going to assume you are Boko Haram and/or Islamic State west Africa,” he said.
“Such an approach was understandable in the short term, but the long-term risk is that you are depriving people of their livelihoods and their farms. There are 2 million people displaced living there at the moment in pretty horrific circumstances.
“Both NGOs and military analysts fear the recent increase in violence reflects changes in the terrorist leadership, and a failure by the Nigerian military to establish humanitarian plans to follow the military clearances of areas. The brutal methods only lead to a loss of support for the military.”