Fighting Boko Haram: 'Ghosts' haunt otherwise fine New York Times report

Applause for the New York Times for keeping an eye on Nigeria, which has been struggling for years with Boko Haram terrorists. But the clapping is a bit muted because of the religious "ghosts" in the latest story.

As the most populous nation in Africa -- the Times puts it at 190 million -- Nigeria can be seen as a bellwether for the rest of the continent. And rather than a dry recital of official stats and statements, the 1,370-word Times story captures the dread under which many Nigerians live:

DAKAR, Senegal — A sense of fear nags at Hauwa Bulama every time she leaves home.
She worries that suicide bombers might be lurking at the vegetable stand where she shops for her six children. They could turn up at the hospital where she takes her relatives. Any woman in a hijab could have a suicide belt under her clothes, she fears. The frequent public announcements to avoid crowded areas in her northern Nigerian city only heighten her anxiety.
"You are always afraid," said Ms. Bulama, who lives in Maiduguri, a frequent target of the ruthless Islamist insurgent group Boko Haram. "When you take your child to be immunized, you don’t know who is seated next to you. You don’t know who is hiding what."
For Ms. Bulama and countless others in northern Nigeria and across the Lake Chad region, the victories scored by President Muhammadu Buhari’s multinational campaign against Boko Haram since taking office in May have mattered little to their daily lives.

The article acknowledges that the government of President Buhari has killed many Boko Haram fighters and shrunk their areas of control. An international fighting force, which includes Chad, Niger, Nigeria and Cameroon -- with armored vehicles from the United States -- has pushed back and scattered the terrorists. Buhari has even boasted that "technically we have won the war."

Yet the conflict has created more than 2.4 million refugees, the Times reports. The 200-plus schoolgirls kidnapped in 2014 are still missing, a clear sign of poor intelligence gathering. And the suicide bombings have continued -- two more in the last two weeks.

The newspaper praises Buhari for replacing ineffective army commanders and moving headquarters into the battle zone of northeastern Nigeria. But rebuilding the military will take money, something in short supply in the wake of the slump in oil prices.

Inevitably, the article turns to long-term solutions. The combat zones will eventually move from military to civilian rule. One clear need will be to rebuild trust in the military, which has been accused of being ruthless against civilians, the Times says. Another sounds more iffy: the traditional emphasis on "more money for social and economic programs," including jobs.

I say it that way because mainstream media and their allies tend to view most problems through the lenses of economics and politics. The Times article goes so far as to hold out a café in the city of Damaturu -- "complete with Wi-Fi and table tennis and snooker tables" -- as part of the fix, so it'll occupy teenagers.

For all the facets this story examines, however, I don’t see anything about the beliefs of Boko Haram -- their anti-scientific mentality, their strict interpretation of the Quran, their recent allegiance to ISIS -- although the BBC posted such facts last spring.

As a jihadi organization -- the full name is Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad, Arabic for "People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad" -- Boko Haram obviously fighting for religious reasons. Yes, the Times story is already long, but you don't need a lengthy discourse. Just a couple of sentences, or maybe a link to a backgrounder, would have worked.

Social and economic factors are undoubtedly part of the solution, but the faith factor cannot be overlooked. For instance, the two largest religions in Nigeria, Christianity and Islam, both have versions of the Golden Rule.  Muhammad is quoted as saying, "None of you truly believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself." And of course, Jesus said, "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets." How would the situation on the ground change if most Nigerians followed that one teaching?

This is not rosy, pie-in-the-sky stuff. The Associated Press said back in July that the Buhari government was consulting "respected Islamic scholars and Muslim elders" who were ignored in the previous government. What have they come up with?

Could they condemn the use of violence in the name of religion, as Pope Francis did yesterday?

Could they issue and publicize a fatwa on how it's un-Islamic to attack the innocent, as an alliance of American Muslim groups did a decade ago?

Could they shield houses of worship with human chains, as more than 1,000 Muslims did with a synagogue last year in Oslo?

Those are just a few ideas off the top of my head. I'll bet the Nigerians have thought up others that are appropriate to their culture. Such ideas could be at least as effective as armored vehicles and snooker tables. And the Times needs to tell us.

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