Monday, 23 January 2017

Monday, 21 November 2016

“Make America White Again”: how US racial politics led to the election of Donald Trump

[Originally published in The New Statesman]
Just as Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy came after civil rights protests, the President-Elect’s campaign followed an African-American president.
When President Barack Obama was elected in 2008 and 2012, there was much talk of the “Obama effect” and what his presidency would mean. In some circles, that talk leaned towards the optimistic, with visions of unity, civil rights advances, and the positive symbolism of his election given America’s history of institutionalised segregation and systematic prejudice.
While many liberals have been critical of Obama’s policies and expressed disappointment about what he has done (or failed to do) in office, one underestimated effect was the other side of that coin: the counter-reaction, the anger, sadness and sense of victimisation that eight years of an African-American president would invoke in some Americans.
Some of that counter-reaction could be put down to party politics. After all, nobody wants to see a rival party stay in power for too long. However, some of that anger was about something much deeper, more sinister and, in truth, more in line with an ugly historical status quo. For some, being president was simply not Obama’s rightful role in the American story; that he ever got to the White House, and for so long, was in itself a cause for concern.
As time went on, I personally noticed a growing sentiment – exploited by right-wing media – that white Americans were losing out under this black president, and that white identity and culture (supposedly the de facto“American way”) were being threatened by this move towards a more open, inclusive and diverse society. That is, America as some people knew it was changing, quickly – and for the worse – as women, minorities, gay people and others were apparently being promoted, affirmed and championed at the expense of white people.
Those who believed that they should exclusively be the political, social and culturally dominant participants in, and holders of, the country’s rights and privileges were increasingly aggrieved by what they perceived as statewide affirmative action that was leaving them out in the cold.
One of the Americans disturbed by Obama’s election was now-President-Elect Donald Trump. His discontent became apparent in 2011 when he emerged as one of the key proponents of people on the extreme right claiming that Obama was not a US citizen and, therefore, did not legitimately hold the rights to the presidency.
Objectively, there was no reason to believe that Obama was not a natural born citizen. Indeed, the real reason for taking this view was to undermine his presidency and to promote the notion that the only way a black American had become president was due to some kind of fraud or conspiracy.
Given that the entirety of this nation’s civil rights activism has been based on the fight for African-Americans, other people of colour and oppressed groups to have full participatory rights and be treated fairly and equally as full American citizens (as opposed to partial ones), the Birther issue had deep racial significance. It spoke to, as well as embraced, a highly racialised worldview. At that point, Trump unequivocally aligned himself with the extreme angle of contemporary American right-wing politics.
In reality, if one looks at Trump’s history, his attitudes and behavior should not that surprising. He has consistently demonstrated that he holds unsavoury and prejudiced views of people of color. It is for this reason that his open alignment with people who subscribe to the “alt-right” (a modern euphemism for people with extreme far-right views, including white supremacists) vision of America and his promotion of people like Steve Bannon is not something that should be taken lightly.
What we are witnessing are the early stages of Trump’s campaign pledge to “make America great again”. Something that some – myself included – take as a coded way of saying “make America white again”. Trump’s choice of language during his campaign, and the people he has appointed since being elected, compound this interpretation of a slogan that is becoming ever more frightening.
Although using division for votes is nothing new for Republicans, Trump appears to be acting directly from the Southern Strategy playbook – a Nixonian strategy from the Seventies based on the exploitation of racial tensions and divisive politics aimed at increasing discord in order to maintain Republican presence.
Interestingly, just as Trump’s victory has come off the back of a black president, Black Lives Matter, and more movement towards increasing rights for minorities in America, the Southern Strategy really came into play during and after growing civil rights protests.
As hard as it is to stomach, there are still people who believe in the inferiority of people of colour and women, who believe that segregation and separation was, and is, a good thing, and that white people (men, especially) have a natural right to power – both in the country and in the world.
If indeed Trump is a throwback to Nixon, and his political allies are well-versed in (and supportive of) that language and that time, we should all be afraid of the divisiveness that is to come. We should expect protests to continue, well past inauguration day. If people thought that Obama had opened up racial tensions, Trump’s appointments do not bode well for the future. I’d like to hope that Trump will indeed make things better – but, sadly, I’m not at all optimistic.  

Friday, 24 June 2016

A sad day as Britain decides to leave the EU

Shame on David Cameron for bringing this chaos to the fore. Being desperately shortsighted, he traded common sense for UKIP votes and has now unleashed major damage - and perhaps future destruction - on his own country. Seeing the unapologetically bigoted Nigel Farage smiling with glee and claiming a victory is making me sick to my stomach; the irony being that even Farage himself didn't expect the UK to vote to leave the EU!

Looking at the breakdown amongst age groups, it's clear that the oldies of Britain have voted for a future that the young ones don't want. However, it's the youth who will suffer from the results of this short-sighted, fear-based, low-quality-information orientated referendum - a referendum on *their* future, a future which them and their children will have to deal with long after these older people are gone.
Once the Leavers' celebration is over, what comes next? What exactly is the plan? With the uncertainty over the direction of the UK set to continue for the foreseeable future, how do Leavers expect the markets to respond? Have the Leavers thought through the possibility of the UK entering another recession? Will this vote be worth that?

Leavers - what is your vision for the future of the UK? Both on its own and in terms of its relationship with Europe? Do you think that you're in a strong(er) position now to negotiate with Europe? Exactly what incentive does Europe have to gain from negotiating with UK at this point, when they need to try and stop other countries from doing the same thing?
And, what about the social fabric of the UK? Have Leavers not just opened up the door to open and overt xenophobia and bigotry? Do we really want to live in an openly nationalistic nation? A land which has essentially been given permission to be hostile to people they don't like?
I hope that the people who said that Brexit would be good for Britain will hold true to their word on behalf of all those who have followed what their claims and statements. If not, Leave supporters may find themselves having to come to terms with what is a massive hoodwinking.
And, finally, with so much fear about being controlled by elites, perhaps the the next referendum be on the future of the monarchy?

What a time to be alive...

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Buzzfeed: A “Slave Candle” Has Been Pulled From Sale By Selfridges After Complaints by Lola Adesioye

Responding to the backlash, the high-end department store said it agreed the candle, priced at £160, could be viewed as inappropriate.


Luxury department store Selfridges has removed a £160 “liberated slave” candle from sale after customers complained it was inappropriate.

Twitter

Lola Adesioye, a writer and commentator from London who now lives in New York, told BuzzFeed News she was browsing the candle section of the Selfridges website last week and was “taken aback” when she noticed the “unusual-looking item”.
Selfridges’ website provided little context or background information about the object apart from the caption “Liberated Slave wax bust” and a brief description suggesting it should not be set alight as it is “essentially decorative”.
Selfridges
Adesioye, who read social and political science at Cambridge University, then visited the website of the candlemaker, Cire Trudon, to find out more about the item. She discovered it was part of a collection representing key figures from French history.
Cire Trudon, which was founded in 1643 and describes itself as the oldest candle manufacturer in the world, was granted exclusive rights by the French National Museum to reproduce in wax a series of busts created around 1870 by the French sculptor and painter Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux.
The company had chosen to reproduce Carpeaux’s Marie Antoinette, Napoleon, and Benjamin Franklin, as well as “Pourquoi naĆ®tre esclave?” (Why born a slave?) – which is the piece that has proven controversial.

Adesioye believes the slave sculpture was not an appropriate piece of art for Cire Trudon to re-create as a candle or any decorative item.

She questioned why the department store thought it was a good idea to have the item on sale – especially, she said, “given the history and awful nature of slavery and the kinds of responses and even triggers that it can provoke in people”.
“I don’t think Selfridges should have been selling it – particularly not without providing background as to why they were doing so,” she said. “And particularly not without thinking that some people might have found it upsetting – even if the woman is supposed to be liberated.”
“If there had been an artwork of a Holocaust survivor, would Cire Trudon have made a candle out of it, and would Selfridges have sold it?” she added.

After sharing a screenshot of the item on her social media accounts, Adesioye said people were “shocked” and also found the candle to be “strange and offensive”.



Twitter
Twitter


A Change.org petition was launched urging Selfridges to stop selling the slave candle and was backed by signatories who called it “insensitive” and “insulting”.

Shortly after that, a statement was released on the Selfridges Twitter account saying the store agreed the “candle could be viewed as inappropriate” and that it would be removed from sale.



A spokesperson for Selfridges also confirmed to BuzzFeed News that the item would no longer be available to buy online or in store. They declined to comment further.
Cire Trudon’s executive director, Julien Pruvost, told BuzzFeed News that the “Liberated Slave” decorative wax object is an image is of “positivity and hope” and that each piece was chosen as a tribute to the period of time when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was first written.
Cire Trudon
 
“Carpeaux always attempted to give a faithful representation of human movements; he sculpted the slave figure with a bust holding obliquely in order to express revolt,” Pruvost said in a statement.
“The figure expresses freedom and the breaking of bonds, and was created against the political and social backdrop of the revolutionary century as well as the abolition of slavery across the world. Carpeaux’s talent serves a powerful idea.”
Pruvost added that “it was never our aim to hurt anyone’s feelings”. And, since the context of the candle wasn’t provided on the Selfridges website, he believes “many reactions might have been sparked by a lack of complete information”.

However, Adesioye believes a candle depicting a “liberated slave” has no place in a department store.

“Pieces like that which have a lot of unpleasant history behind them and that provoke a lot of questions should be handled more sensitively,” she said.
“While this bust is supposed to be a piece about resistance, slavery is not a joke topic, nor something for people to commoditise and make money out of in 2016.”

Sunday, 12 June 2016

What England means to me

[Essay originally published on What England Means to Me]
England to me means home. It means fond memories of school days; Sundays holed up in a pub drinking wine and eating a succulent roast while discussing the state of the weather with good friends; running to catch a train from Victoria station after a hard day’s work and breathing a sigh of relief once I’m on it and as the train rolls out of central London into the leafier suburbs.
England is what I signify to people when I’m abroad. My accent, my sarcastic sense of humour, my values and politeness (such as saying sorry when I really don’t need to) are all products of being brought up in England. “Oh! You’re from England!” people exclaim before asking me whether it really does rain all the time.
England is also a part of me that non-English people sometimes don’t understand. “Are there black people in England?” I’m asked that on a regular basis. Yes there are, but we clearly don’t fit into the idea of what Englishness means to others, nor are we often visible in mediums of communication such as TV and film so some people abroad really do not know that we exist.
The Englishness in me is sometimes an anomaly to people who don’t expect to hear a black woman speaking with an accent which to them sounds like the Queen’s. England is a part of me that sometimes forces people to change their perceptions, to do a double-take and to look and listen to me differently.
England is the ‘green and pleasant land’ described in Jerusalem, one of my favourite songs. At the same time it is also – being that I come from London – inner city and urban; a metropolis of sky scrapers and polluting cars and buses; a landscape dotted with parks which sit alongside historical buildings and cultural landmarks. It is at once inclusive yet at the same time, at times, hostile to immigrants and foreigners. It is both a melting pot and apparently tolerant yet also the country that has colonised and oppressed large sections of the world and gave birth to figures such as Enoch Powell.
What does it mean to be English? Is it interchangeable with being British? That’s a tricky question. I will always have a sense that although I was born and bred in England, I am not considered to be truly English. English is not as accommodating a concept as say, American; being “English” still has a connotation that does not fully encompass black people – I’m not sure that it ever will. It’s very possible to be both an insider and an outsider at the same time. “British” however – thankfully in many ways – is an all encompassing term, meaning everything… and at the same time very little.
In any case, I am proud of having being born and raised in England… I know and am well aware of England’s colonial roots and no doubt England has, for such a small place, created a lot of havoc in the world! As a person of colour I would be silly not to acknowledge that. But for all it’s sins, contradictions and paradoxes, it’s still home.
Lola Adesioye is a regular contributor to the Guardian who hails from London but now lives in New York

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Sky News: Will The #CrimingWhileWhite Hashtag Make A Difference?

After a spate of black people being killed by white police officers, America is taking a closer look at discrimination. But will the "Criming While White" hashtag make any difference?

    

Thursday, 23 October 2014

KNOW WHAT’S SCARIER—AND MORE OF A THREAT—THAN EBOLA? THE RACISM IT’S FUELING.

[Originally published in The Tablet]
A hysteria-fueled media paints a continent’s people in grossly stereotypical strokes. Stop us if you’ve heard this one before.
Over the past few years, those with an interest in Africa’s future have sought to overturn what the writer Chimamanda Adichie has termed “the danger of a single story.” Until recently, the single story about Africa, perpetuated mainly through the Western media, had been that of a “dark” continent rife with disease, famine, poverty, and backward attitudes, behaviors, and practices. Yet until the advent of Ebola, a more multifaceted portrayal of modern Africa and its people had been working its way into the mainstream. The world was starting to hear about Africa’s growth and potential, its entrepreneurial and ambitious people, its nations with faster economic growth than any in the West, and the continent’s growing middle class. Unfortunately, the media coverage of Ebola in the past month alone may have taken us back to square one.
This isn’t Ebola’s fault. The virus is, undoubtedly, a scary thing. It has a high fatality rate, is highly infectious (although not highly contagious since it is not an airborne virus). There is currently no cure. It has claimed the lives of thousands of people in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone in a matter of months. There is also no doubt that the impact of such diseases poses a very real threat to growth and prosperity. None of these facts can be, nor should be, ignored.
However, the media’s handling of the virus, its origins, and its propagation (which some in the media have suggested comes from people eating wildlife, even though this has not been scientifically proven) has reverted to an age-old reliance on lazy stereotypes, generalizations, and misleading information that once again disseminate a view of the African continent’s 1 billion people as wild-animal-eating, jungle-roaming, primitive, disease-carrying “others.” Let’s take for example articles such as one that featured recently in the Washington Post, the headline of which was “Why West Africans keep hunting and eating bush meat despite Ebola concerns.” The reality is that not only do many West Africans not eat bush meat—defined as terrestrial mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians harvested for food—but that many Africans in general—whether from south, east, north or west—do not eat bush meat.
Yet, the Washington Post insists that “to many Africans [my emphasis] … bush meat is not only the food of their forefathers, it is life-sustaining protein where nutrition is scarce.” The Washington Post also contrasts Africans’ apparent love of the meat of baboons, chimpanzees, and other wildlife against the “foreign eye” to which bush meat “looks like a flattened, blackened lump of unidentifiable animal parts.” They fail to include the fact that to many Africans, bush meat also looks equally undesirable. If a well-respected media outlet continues to perpetuate such stereotypes and myths, one can only imagine what a regular American thinks about Africans as a result of having been exposed to this kind of coverage.
Articles of this type not only generalize and create a homogenous and monolithic idea of what it is to be African in the 21st century, but posit yet again the average African’s behaviors as primitive and strange, not to mention inferior and absurd. This generalized reporting continues unabated despite the fact there have been—according to the World Health Organization—approximately 4,500 deaths from Ebola: A minuscule portion of the continent’s population.
Although the Ebola virus was first diagnosed as an epidemic in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone earlier this year it wasn’t until a Liberian medical worker, Thomas Eric Duncan, returned from Liberia to the United States with the virus (and subsequently died) in late September that the level of media interest and coverage given to the virus in America exploded. It is natural that American media is interested in stories that affect American people, and it makes sense that more coverage would have been given to Ebola, an illness that very few people would ever have heard of, when it started to have an impact on America. Yet the high level of media interest does not correspond to the low probability of the average America actually getting the virus.
Given that the virus can only be caught from direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person, one would have to know someone with Ebola and to have spent time touching or treating that person in close quarters to fall ill. Realistically, Americans have more chance of contracting the flu—which kills some 36,000 Americans every year and results in more than 200,000 hospitalizations—than they do of contracting Ebola.
Yet this has not stopped growing panic and hysteria, which is being fueled by ongoing sensationalism, not only about Ebola itself, but about Africa and African people. It is one thing to talk about the disease, but quite another to stereotype an entire continent. The media gives the impression, however, through its coverage of Ebola, that Africa is just one country—rather than 55 separate and distinct ones—and that all Africans are the same, living in the same kinds of conditions and circumstances. Indeed, the very description of Ebola as affecting “West Africa” is inaccurate, since West Africa is made up of 17 nations, only three of which—Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, with a combined population of 22 million—have been seriously affected by Ebola. Both Nigeria and Senegal, which experienced a handful of Ebola cases, are likely to be declared Ebola-free by the World Health Organization in the coming days.
While President Barack Obama has urged people to stay calm, statements from politicians such as Rep. Tim Murphy, a Tennessee Republican who supports a travel ban on all people from West African nations, do not help. He likens Ebola—and perhaps by extension Africans themselves—to a foreign terrorist threat that could destroy America. This is unhelpful and prejudiced language.
Such fear-mongering may be why over the past month there have been a growing number of reported cases of what can only be described as Ebola-fueled discrimination. While it is to be expected that there might be a profound downturn in tourism and business in countries affected by the outbreak, Africans in the United States are reporting discrimination and prejudice. Navarro College in Dallas has started rejecting African students for its Spring 2015 entry on the basis that they may come from countries with confirmed Ebola cases. Liberians in America have taken to Twitter to encourage people not to stereotype them. West African soccer players are being excluded from playing in international games. I myself overheard a man on a bus in New York City ask his friend if he “had been around any Africans lately?” when his friend complained about suffering from cold-like symptoms.
Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, recently warned against discrimination against Africans arising as a result of the Ebola coverage, saying, “We must also beware of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ a mentality that locks people into rigid identity groups and reduces all Africans—or all West Africans, or some smaller, national or local group—to a stereotype.” He is right. There’s enough mindless and toxic discrimination in the world as it is. Ebola shouldn’t be used as an excuse for more.

Friday, 16 May 2014

MUSLIM EXTREMISTS KIDNAP 300 GIRLS IN NIGERIA

[Originally published in The Tablet]

The militant group Boko Haram is far more audacious than even this recent horrific, and unresolved, mass abduction lets on

On the evening of April 14, 2014, hundreds of young women between the ages of 16 and 18 were abducted from Government Secondary School, an all-girls’ high school in Chibok, a small farming town in Borno State, in the northeast of Nigeria. They had gone to school to sit their final exams.
 
Even though schools in that region had been closed due to growing terrorist activity aimed at school children, it had been decided that the girls’ education was too precious and too important to forfeit, and the school had been opened anyway. It now appears that this was a very costly, albeit well-intentioned, mistake.
That evening, large numbers of heavily armed men arrived at the school campus claiming to be local military officials. Gaining the girls’ confidence, the men persuaded them that they were not in danger. However, before the girls knew what was happening, they were forcibly loaded onto trucks and motorbikes and driven at high speed into the night. Several of the girls—numbering between 33 and 53 (reports differ)—were fortunate enough to escape. A month later, however, the rest (numbering approximately 233) remain at large.
In the first few weeks after this mass abduction, international media turned a blind eye to the plight of Chibok’s abducted girls, showing a distinct lack of interest in the story. The case of missing Malaysia Flight MH370 had taken precedence and was filling news channels around the globe as the search for the plane and its missing 227 passengers and 12 crew members—fewer people than had been abducted in Chibok—became the largest multinational search-and-rescue operation in history. Perhaps it’s because a number of the passengers were European and Australian, or because a missing plane is considered to be of great significance to the average Westerner, but MH370 was deemed a more newsworthy story than the kidnapping of a huge  number of girls by terrorists.
Of course, the under-reporting of stories that relate to Africa and African people isn’t anything new. Many major humanitarian crises that have taken place in Africa have not been covered well by Western media, and it has usually taken some kind of exceptional situation, the reaching of a boiling point, for the West to sit up and take notice. Take the Rwandan genocide, for example, and even the current conflict in the Central African Republic. Unfortunately it is taken for granted that abnormal events happen in Africa and thus they are not extraordinary enough for Westerners to pay attention to.
What is most sad is that if this kind of mass abduction had taken place in America or Europe, there is no doubt that it would immediately have been considered an international crisis. The kidnapping of close to 300 school-aged young women would have made high-profile, prime time news around the world, with world leaders expressing their disgust and dismay and pledging immediate support in helping to find the girls and their abductors.
It wasn’t just the lack of international attention or coverage that was startling, though. Little was also being done by local authorities and the federal Nigerian government who had no tally of how many girls had been abducted, didn’t know what their names were nor where they had been taken. Recognizing an unwillingness and/or inability by authorities to tackle the issue, and incensed by a clear disinterest in the Western media’s reporting, ordinary Nigerian citizens started asking hard questions, making a fuss, and demanding that something be done by authorities and media alike. Anger and frustration about the ongoing unresolved situation was channeled into a grassroots, online-based campaign, with citizens-turned-activists taking to Facebook and Twitter, using the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls in an attempt to garner international interest in the outrageous case. The question these activists were asking was, if the media can talk about MH370 and give time and attention to the youngsters on the sunken Korean ship, then why not the girls in Chibok? Are they not also someone’s daughters and siblings, cousins and friends?
The efforts around the campaign have undoubtedly worked in one respect. #BringBackOurGirls has prompted worldwide condemnation from everyday people and world leaders alike and has led to offers of intelligence and technical support from many countries including the United States, Israel, the United Kingdom, and China. However, while the social media campaign has gone a long way toward putting Chibok’s girls at the forefront of our minds, the situation in Borno State and in North East Nigeria as a whole remains an extremely delicate and complicated one.
Ironically, the moniker of Borno State where the girls were captured is “the home of peace.” But in recent years that peace has been shattered as the state has become one of the key bases and targets for Boko Haram, the militant Islamist group behind this mass abduction. Boko Haram, which is allegedly tied to al-Qaida, has been growing in its violence and unscrupulous audacity.
The group’s official name is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad which, in Arabic, means “people committed to the propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad.” Boko Haram, the name most popularly associated with the group, is actually a nickname given by local people, with “boko” meaning “Western education” and “haram” meaning “forbidden” in the local Hausa language. Whichever name one decides to use, one thing is for sure: Both names and both translations are menacing and are not to be taken lightly.
Created in 2002 in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, by Mohammed Yusuf, a charismatic, well-educated, and Mercedes-Benz-driving Islamist cleric, Boko Haram’s goal was the full implementation of Sharia law across Nigeria and the establishment of an Islamic state in the country. Borno State is actually one of nine northern Nigerian states where Sharia law has been in effect since 2012. The reality, though, is that with both large Christian and Muslim populations in Nigeria, many of whom live compatibly in the rest of the country, the implementation of widespread Sharia law is highly unlikely to ever happen. Increased desire for it, however, can only lead to more attacks.
In 2009, long-standing tensions between Boko Haram and Nigerian security forces led to violent clashes across several northeastern Nigerian states. These clashes left around 800 people including many members of Boko Haram, as well as members of Yusuf’s own family, dead. Yusuf was arrested, interrogated by Nigerian security forces, and later killed under questionable circumstances. His death angered Boko Haram members, left a gaping void in leadership, and gave them further justification for their cause, all of which has served to empower and embolden the current generation of the insurrection, who now oppose anything that they consider Westernized in Nigeria, whether women’s rights, education, religion, dress, politics, or law.
According to human rights groups, some 10,000 men, women, and children have been murdered by Boko Haram since 2002 as part of its violent campaign against the “Westernization” of the northeastern part of Nigeria. In 2014 alone, 1,500 people have died at the hands of these ruthless militants. Unfortunately, though perhaps unsurprisingly, the antics of the militant group have become increasingly brazen since Yusuf’s death in 2009. In 2010, the group—under the direction of its current leader Abubakar Shekau, now the most wanted man in Africa—organized a prison break. Giving the finger to local enforcement officials and Nigeria’s security forces, they freed more than 700 prisoners. A 2011 suicide car bomb attack on a United Nations building—this time in Abuja, the nation’s capital—killed at least 21 and left 60 injured.
Attacks on young people, particularly students, have also become more widespread. In September 2013, Boko Haram attacked an agricultural college, slaughtering 44 students and teachers. In February 2014, they burned down a school in Yobe State, killing 29 boys in the process. Last month, in addition to the school abductions, the group claimed responsibility for the bombing of a bus station on the outskirts of Abuja—close to where the World Economic Forum on Africa was due to commence—that left 71 people dead. Such is their audacity that, while the story of the Chibok mass abduction was being broadcast around the world, they attacked a town, killing 310 people, and even abducted eight more girls.
Although the Chibok kidnapping is the first on such a scale, the abduction of women and girls has become standard Boko Haram fare in the past few years. The organization Human Rights Watch has been reporting on Boko Haram’s violence toward women—including rapes and forcible conversions to Islam, sexual enslavement, and forced marriages and pregnancies—for some time and has been calling for the Nigerian government to consider the group’s focus on women and girls a humanitarian crisis.
Boko Haram, which was formally declared a terrorist group by the United States in 2013 (a little late considering how long they had been in operation), has taken responsibility for the Chibok mass abduction, with the group’s leader claiming in a video that he would sell the girls “on the market.” The wanton disregard for human life, especially the lives of women, is obvious.
Abubakar Shekau has since declared that he will return the girls, whom he says have been converted to Islam, in exchange for the return of detained Boko Haram members—an offer that the Nigerian government has categorically rejected. In the past, however, Boko Haram has received some benefit from kidnappings: They were paid $3 million and secured the release of seven prisoners in exchange for the safe return of a French family kidnapped in Northern Cameroon last year. Hopefully the Nigerian government has realized that paying them off does little to quell the violence.
One of the reasons that the violence is hard to tame is that a fundamentalist understanding of the Quran is one of the key factors driving Boko Haram. John Campbell, the former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, has stated that Boko Haram is “looking toward the creation of God’s kingdom on earth through violence against those they see as Islam’s enemies, rather than the achievement of a political program.” In essence, they have given themselves carte blanche to wreak havoc on Nigeria, against Christians and Muslims who may not agree with them, with the justification of their own particular deeply orthodox understanding of their religion.
Of course, Muslim sects in the north of Nigeria are not a new phenomenon. Boko Haram is just the latest in a line of groups seeking to undermine and oust the established Muslim elite that, through the power gained via indirect rule that was created in the colonial era, they deem corrupt and beyond redemption. They view the elite as having enriched themselves at the expense of the general Muslim community and as having embraced and adopted corrupt Western ways. This is why some of the group’s targets have also been Muslim. Of course, Boko Haram, with its Western guns and Western military vehicles, cannot be totally against all things Western. But it’s enough so that the group can use that hatred to further their cause.
Boko Haram is also not the only militant group with a cause in Africa, which is definitely reason for concern. Other jihadi-minded terrorist groups have been rearing their heads on the continent in the past few years as well. Remember last year’s bombing and siege at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, which led to the death of 67 people? Behind that was Al-Shabaab, a Somali-based group made up of some 4,000-6,000 militants of Somali and foreign origin and with overt al-Qaida links. Al-Shabaab also wishes to wage war on “enemies” of Islam and just last week issued a video encouraging Muslims to organize a lone-wolf attack on the West. Like Boko Haram, they also target civilian gathering places and have a strong sense of hostility and anger towards those whom they consider to be oppressors. Although the link between Boko Haram and other groups including al-Qaida has not been confirmed, some of Boko Haram’s recent attacks—including suicide car bombs—bear hallmarks of the improvised explosives used by al-Qaida in the Sahel zone of Africa, suggesting that the groups may have shared strategic and tactical information with one another. There is also concern that, despite differences in ideology, various militant groups in Africa could eventually join together out of convenience.
Currently, the numbers of militants involved in Boko Haram are uncertain. However, it is clear that, in addition to the religious fundamentalism, there are also particular underlying regional, social, cultural, and economic factors specific to the northern region of Nigeria that are driving young men to join the group.
Many of Boko Haram’s foot soldiers are reported to be among the long-term unemployed. It should come as no surprise, then, that poverty and economic inequality is a huge issue in the northeast of Nigeria. The northern part of Nigeria, much poorer than the south, has become increasingly marginalized and arguably ignored, politically and economically, over time. As an agrarian region, poverty is rife: Approximately 76 percent of people in that part of the country live in extreme poverty on less than $1 per day. The unemployment rate, particularly among young men, is high, and the region is generally underdeveloped. Such is the depth of the problem that, in 2011, Dr. Yerima Ngama, the finance minister for the region, proclaimed that it remained one of the most “backward” in terms of human development and said, “It is like we are not part of Nigeria.” According to a reportwritten by the International Crisis Group, “In many parts of the country, the government is unable to provide security, good roads, water, health, reliable power, and education. The situation is particularly dire in the far north. Frustration and alienation drive many to join ‘self-help’ ethnic, religious, community, or civic groups, some of which are hostile to the state.” It is these kinds of conditions that, left to fester, have culminated in what we see today.
The region’s terrain itself makes detection and capture difficult. It is believed that the remaining abducted girls may be in the Sambisa Forest, a vast forest reserve measuring 60,000 square km (23,000 square miles)—nearly eight times the size of Yellowstone Park. The sheer size of the forest provides perfect cover for the militants and a ready-made base from which they can go in and out at will and evade authorities.
One of the unanswered questions is about Boko Haram’s level of organization and sophistication, in terms of weaponry and financial muscle. Though it was once thought to be a rag-tag, divided, and decentralized group, one cannot be sure that this is the case anymore. When watching the videos that have been released around this Chibok case, one cannot help but notice the armored military personnel vehicles that sit in the background. Those who have witnessed Boko Haram attacks have also described the militants’ use of Improvised Explosive Devices, petrol bombs, assault rifles, and Rocket Propelled Launchers, all of which cost money and take external connections to get hold of. The fact that the group’s home, Borno State, has a porous border with Chad, Cameroon, and Niger also makes it easier for the group and any of their supporters to move in and out freely. Although Boko Haram’s funders remain as elusive as the group itself, finding out the source of their cash flow would likely go some way toward being able to combat the group.
The Chibok kidnapping case has exposed the serious difficulties that the Nigerian authorities have when it comes to tackling an issue of this kind. While Nigeria may be advanced in some ways, it is obvious that it is behind the curve in its anti-terrorism efforts. Amnesty International has claimed, for example, that Nigerian officials received warnings about the raid on the school in Chibok yet ignored them. It also took the president, Goodluck Jonathan, nearly three weeks to issue a statement on the kidnappings, and even then it was only once the rest of the world was clamoring about the #BringBackOurGirls campaign and public figures like British Prime Minister David Cameron and President Barack Obama had stepped in that he did so.
Statements initially given by government ministers were so full of inaccuracies that they may as well have not been made at all. At one point the Ministry of Defense claimed that the military had freed the girls and that all girls except eight had been found. Shortly afterward, it retracted its statement. One can only wonder why the response has been so poor—is it a sense of being overwhelmed by the threat, or simply not caring very much about what the government only recently seems to have realized is a very serious matter indeed and one that is not just confined to the north of the country?
Although the government says that the military is doing everything it can to find these girls, the nation’s $6 billion security budget—which is double its education budget—doesn’t seem to be translating into effective action on the ground. Nigeria assembled a Joint Task Force of military and police units to battle Boko Haram and declared a “state of emergency” in three northeast states—Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa—in May 2013. Yet this has not stopped Boko Haram from advancing, causing more damage, and creating more fear.
Perhaps now with the gaze of the world on Nigeria, some real steps will be taken toward combating Boko Haram in a way that will be effective. The scrutiny may now also force the Nigerian government to get its act together. Nigeria should most certainly accept the world’s help if it is not sure that it can do this alone.
The future of these young girls—and others like them—is at stake here. Nigeria’s future is also at stake. Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy and its most populous nation, with 174 million people. It has the potential to become a global economic power in the next decade, with foreign direct investment to the country rising 28 percent in 2013 alone. Although Nigerians and foreigners are standing strong, terrorism of this kind always has the effect of undermining progress. That is exactly its aim.