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.