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Editorial: Aid, Africa, and the fight against al-Qa’ida

It is impossible to escape the conclusion that groups like Boko Haram oppose all our civilisation believes to be worthwhile

Nigeria’s decision to declare emergency rule in the north-east of the country, and to send large numbers of troops to enforce it, is sadly justified by events on the ground. It must not fail. Boko Haram now controls significant parts of the region. And the Islamist group’s ties to al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim) are well established.

In the past Aqim’s ambition was limited to eliminating governments in East Africa, but it is now dedicated to destabilising the entire continent. The speed at which Aqim and other Islamist groups seized control of northern Mali and imposed brutally severe sharia law, until forced out by the French intervention, indicates their confidence and the ease with which local populations can be terrorised into submission.

These groups embody the medieval vision of Islam that has already brought misery to populations from Afghanistan to Yemen to Somalia and beyond, enforcing primitive notions of justice, forcing women into seclusion, and restricting education (for boys) to the most reductive forms of religious brainwashing. In the process – and by design – these organisations do all in their power to make weak states even weaker, until they fail. In this way, they are deliberately dismantling all that has been achieved in Africa, however imperfectly and incompletely.

Samuel Huntington’s concept of “the clash of civilisations” is one that, in many parts of the world, is of doubtful validity. But in the case of groups like Nigeria’s Islamist insurgents – both Boko Haram and the more recently formed Ansaru – it is impossible to escape the conclusion that their proposals diametrically oppose all that we believe to be worthwhile.

Yesterday’s initiative by President Goodluck Jonathan will not succeed on its own. Al-Qa’ida-like groups find it easy to become established in countries where political and bureaucratic sloth and corruption combine with entrenched poverty and the cynical interventions of foreign business to erode hopeful visions of the future. Thus, oil-rich Nigeria.

There are also problems peculiar to the country that make its situation more intractable. Religion has always divided the Islamic north from the Christian south, and politicians and emirs in the north, angered by Jonathan’s accession, have made use of the insurgency to weaken him. The President has, in turn, shown signs of confusion and vacillation: after rejecting northerners’ demands to negotiate with the insurgents, he then set up a grandly named Presidential Committee to try to bring peace. The group was inaugurated only last week, and is still notionally in operation, even as the government troops flood northwards.

With signs of such incoherence in the leadership, it is unlikely that the new military campaign will achieve quick success. And while Boko Haram has killed thousands of Nigerians since the war broke out in 2009, the army also stands accused of committing atrocities.

Nigeria’s battle against the insurgency is one for Africans to fight, but there is much that can be done behind the scenes to improve the chances of victory. With the aim of giving ordinary Nigerians better reason to believe in their common future, the initiative announced yesterday by the UK’s International Development minister, Lynne Featherstone, committing £39m to improving the life chances of Nigerian girls and women is commendable. Furthermore, the spectacle of a Commonwealth country confronting a dire foe is also an additional argument for maintaining our aid spending in the country.