More Debate over an FTO Designation for Nigeria’s Boko Haram

The US Secretary of State has the power to formally designate groups as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs). This document gives the official criteria for and ramifications of such a designation.

In the spring, serious pressure arose to designate Nigeria’s Boko Haram movement an FTO. In April, Republican Representatives Peter King and Patrick Meehan urged the State Department to make the declaration. Opposing such a move was a group of American scholars, who circulated an open letter (.pdf) to Sec. Hillary Clinton in May. Prominent Nigerian voices have been found on both sides of the debate. For example, President Ayo Oritsejafor of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) supports an FTO designation for Boko Haram; Nigerian Ambassador to the United States Professor Adebowale Adefuye opposes it.

In June, the State Department attempted a compromise on the issue by naming three individual Boko Haram leaders, Abubakar Shekau, Abubakar Adam Kambar, and Khalid al-Barnawi, as Specially Designated Global Terrorists. The compromise put the issue to rest temporarily, but calls for an FTO designation for the entire group have resurfaced recently both in the US Congress and in the form of a petition among the Nigerian-American diaspora.

I am not a lawyer and nothing I say should be taken as a formal legal argument, but it seems to me that given the breadth and flexibility of the criteria for an FTO designation, any competent lawyer would have little difficulty arguing that Boko Haram meets the criteria. The debate, however, is not taking place on abstract legal grounds, but rather on political grounds. This is appropriate, I would say, because the designation is a political decision that will bring both intended and unintended political consequences.

The scholars who argue against the designation make political arguments:

An FTO designation would internationalize Boko Haram, legitimize abuses by Nigeria’s security services, limit the State Department’s latitude in shaping a long term strategy, and undermine the U.S. Government’s ability to receive effective independent analysis from the region.

As someone who wishes to see peace in Nigeria, I agree with these arguments.

Undoubtedly some will take opposition to the designation as some kind of apology for Boko Haram or partisanship for Northern Nigeria. But for me, making the argument over the designation into a debate over the nature of Boko Haram, or the symbolic value of calling them terrorists, misses the point. At stake in the debate, ultimately, is the question of whether you think the specific legal mechanisms that would be triggered by the designation would help or hurt the effort to end the violence caused by Boko Haram. I think they would hurt, and the letter does a good job of explaining why. If the US government refrains from making the designation, that does not mean Washington does not believe Boko Haram is a serious and tragic problem. It means Washington is choosing other courses of action, and avoiding a decision that could hinder, not advance, the fight. I hope that the State Department will stick with the compromise it made in June, rather than taking what seems likely to be a counterproductive step.

12 thoughts on “More Debate over an FTO Designation for Nigeria’s Boko Haram

  1. Thanks for this summary Alex, excellent as always.
    What I think might be clouding the issue somewhat is that many people in Nigeria and outside don’t fully appreciate that FTO designation is a technical legalistic definition for US institutions, not a general classification of moral culpability.
    I don’t know for sure, but I think that much of the resistance comes from Nigeria and the US is reluctant to force the issue because sovereignty is a sensitive issue to its valuable ally. Because of the increased scrutiny on flows of “shadow” money in and out of Nigeria that FTO designation would bring, it’s not hard to see why the Nigerian government, or more properly the PDP leadership, would be reluctant for the US to go full-on with FTO…

    • many people in Nigeria and outside don’t fully appreciate that FTO designation is a technical legalistic definition for US institutions, not a general classification of moral culpability.

      Well said.

      • Quite recently, in the remote village of Chibok in Borno state, several people had their houses burnt and their throats slit for the mere fact that they were Christian.

        They were killed by Boko Haram in a terrorist act.

        Now if you guys think that events like this don’t matter or that public perception on US action (or lack of it) will not evolve or have any impact – you are in for a rough ride.

        The circuitous argument that Andrew Walker presented is very similar to the argument presented by the Reagan administration in support of the Apartheid regime in South Africa. It was eventually (and reluctantly) abandoned in the face of overwhelming evidence.

  2. “As someone who wishes to see peace in Nigeria, I agree with these arguments.”

    How much “peace” has resulted from the current non designation of Boko Haram as an FTO?

    It is quite simple, Boko Haram is a terrorist organisation. A few Sundays ago they struck at the heart of the Military establishment at Jaji – they are increasingly bolder.

    The “political argument” for non-designation as an FTO is irrelevant. Boko Haram is what it is; a terrorist organisation. If the US government wants to maintain the fiction they are not a terrorist organisation and thinks that it can convince the Nigerian people that they are not – I wish them the best of luck in all their endeavours.

    All the political and intellectual sophistry in the World does not remove a very important fact – several other organisations that have killed a lot less people and have even more “diffuse” structures than Boko Haram have been designated as FTOs. Let us stop deceiving ourselves to satisfy “political considerations”.

    Finally, what do ordinary Nigerians think about the apparent “fence-sitting” of the US State Department? Does the State Department realise that Nigerians suffer immensely from Boko Haram and that Nigeria also has a large Christian community?

    Eventually, Boko Haram will be designated an FTO as it rightly should – so there is no point flogging a “dead horse”. Meanwhile, there is an online petition at the White House website to rightly designate it as such.

  3. Something probably unrelated but odd, apparently the Nigerian Finance Minister’s wife has been kidnapped. Fortunately, so far I haven’t seen any tasteless jokes about email scams.

    • Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala comes from the same part of Nigeria as I do. Unfortunately, kidnapping is quite common there.

      It started from kidnapping expatriate employees of Oil companies and has now evolved to kidnapping wealthy/influential locals.

      It is a manifestation of the same poverty and lack of opportunity that gave rise to the unrest in the North.

  4. Pingback: By Any Other Name: Designating Terrorist Organizations « The Noise and Haste

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