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How does Nigeria's Boko Haram affect U.S. foreign policy in the region?

Question submitted by John Isibor, from Eastern Mediterranean University, November 25, 2013

Answered by: John Campbell, Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies

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The response to Boko Haram and other "jihadist" insurgencies is shaping U.S. foreign policy toward Nigeria and the Sahel. But despite rhetoric to the contrary, the region remains a marginal U.S. priority.

Official U.S. rhetoric is focused increasingly on security issues, rather than development or other conventional goals in the Sahel. Announcing the November 13 designation of Boko Haram and its splinter, Ansaru, as "Foreign Terrorist Organizations," the U.S. Department of State said it would "assist U.S. and other law enforcement partners in efforts to investigate and prosecute terrorist suspects." There are U.S.-sponsored counterterrorism initiatives in the Sahel but the funding and personnel devoted to them are small.

"Boko Haram," meaning "Western education is sinful," is an Islamic, jihadist, militant movement based in northeastern Nigeria. It targets the Nigerian state and army, as well as civilians. In June, the U.S. government designated Boko Haram's leader, Abubakar Shekau, an individual terrorist and set a reward of $7 million for information leading to his location. Though the November 13 FTO designation received media attention, its practical consequences are limited, most involving visa restrictions and checks on financial support of American origins.

But the vague wording of the designation could pose administrative difficulties for Nigerians not connected to jihadist movements. Following the designation, Nigerian ambassador to the U.S. Adebowale Ibidapo Adefuye released a statement opposing the designation for fear of the obstacles it will raise for innocent Nigerians' travel and financial interactions with the United States.

The tiny U.S. presence in northern Nigeria has primarily been in the form of development assistance. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) works to improve the quality of education, strengthen government capacity, and provide adequate health conditions for poverty-stricken northern communities. However, all international assistance programs, including that of USAID, have been scaled back because of the security issues caused by the jihadist revolt and the Abuja government's crackdown in response.