Nigeria’s continuing agony

In this Saturday, Feb. 7, 2015 file photo, a protestor holds a banner as Nigerian security forces look on, during a protest in Abuja, Nigeria. (AP Photo/Lekan Oyekanmi file)

Nigeria’s military has attempted to eradicate the terrorist group Boko Haram, so far with minimal results. The radical Islamist group continues its reign of terror in northeast Nigeria. Among the victims of its campaign of murder and torture are the young girls whom the group has sold into sexual slavery.

Nigeria’s democracy could be another victim. Presidential elections scheduled for Monday have been halted for six weeks, purportedly to give the military time to defeat the terror group. That doesn’t bode well for Africa’s most important democracy.

The delay raises troubling questions. Before the postponement, an independent elections commission and observers insisted that a fair election could be held in spite of the insurgency.

And Secretary of State John Kerry, who visited Nigeria last month to call for fair elections, issued a statement expressing “deep disappointment” at the delay.

The implication is that President Goodluck Jonathan, who was facing possible defeat at the polls, told the military to request the delay.

The military, however, contends that it could not provide security for the polls because of the planned offensive.

So now a great deal depends on the success of an offensive by the ill-prepared Nigerian army, which will be assisted by an international, all-African force now being assembled.

Whether the military, even with the help of troops from neighboring nations, is up to the task is seriously open to question.

The jihadist movement has virtually taken over the state of Bornu, bordering Lake Chad. Meanwhile, it has begun conducting raids in neighboring Cameroon, Niger and Chad, using children as suicide bombers.

Last month Boko Haram razed the Nigerian town of Baga. The Nigerian government reported that the terrorists killed 150 people, but other reports put the death toll at 2,000. Last April Boko Haram kidnapped 276 girls from a Christian school and sold them as “wives” to Muslims as far as away as Mali. Despite global outrage, the group has continued to kidnap women and girls.

The Nigerian military has been both brutal and humiliatingly ineffective in fighting the jihadist group. Last year the White House held up military aid to Nigeria out of concern for human rights abuses by its army.

But the abuses by Boko Haram are far greater, and in retrospect the American decision to withhold help was clearly not the wisest course.

Because of the rapid gains made by Boko Haram, it is now going to take a “huge international and multinational effort” to stop the group, according to Gen. David Sanchez, head of U.S. Africa Command.

The African Union and the United Nations have also declared that Nigeria — Africa’s most populous and wealthiest country — cannot put an end to Boko Haram by itself.

President Jonathan’s sudden decision to launch an offensive before an effective coalition is ready not only forced a temporary postponement of the election, it inevitably raised the question whether his real purpose is to avoid an election altogether.

If so, Nigeria faces a prolonged period of instability and violence — and not solely because of Boko Haram’s heartless thugs.