In the middle of the night on April 14th, hundreds of militants descended on a girls’ school in the northeast Nigerian town of Chibok. After killing the guards and setting the school ablaze, the parade of pickup trucks and motorcycles disappeared into the Sambisa forest, and with them nearly 300 young girls. The girls had not been seen or heard from until May 12, when a video showing about 100 of them clothed in grey veils and praying at gunpoint was released.
The kidnappers are members of the Islamist extremist group widely known as Boko Haram, which means “Western education is forbidden” in the Hausa language spoken in much of northern Nigeria and the surrounding region. Since launching their insurgency in 2009, Boko Haram has killed thousands in Nigeria, primarily civilians. Already this year they have carried out more than ten attacks and killed hundreds of people, including dozens of children.
The kidnapping has caught the interest of the global media and has prompted a significant increase in civil and military aid to the Nigerian government, strengthening the hope that the girls will return to their families soon. But why did it take so long for the Nigerian government to initiate a concerted rescue effort?
As is to be expected, the answer is far from simple. To begin understand the Nigerian government’s delayed reaction, we first need to uncover the tension between those in the central capital of Abuja and the residents of Nigeria’s northern states.
On the whole, Nigeria is the largest economy in Africa and one of the world’s largest oil-producing countries, but this wealth is concentrated in the southern states, rendering Nigeria one of the most unequal countries in the world. The northern states, especially those in the predominantly Muslim northeast, are undeveloped and destitute in comparison. Unrest and violence, much at the hands of Boko Haram, have come hand in hand with this pervasive poverty, and the national government has done little to stop it.
President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency over a year ago in three of the hardest-hit states, including Borno, where Chibok is located; but the government’s response has only worsened the situation: Boko Haram has carried out even more attacks, thousands have been killed, and an estimated 250,000 people have been forced to flee their homes this year.
Instead of channeling resources toward developing infrastructure, access to public education, and other poverty alleviation measures, the government has responded solely with military force, and a heavy-handed and underfunded one at that. Nigerian soldiers say that they are not given nearly enough material resources, from food to firepower, and they are facing an increasingly well-trained and well-armed insurgency. At the same time, civilians in these contested areas say that the Nigerian soldiers are just as brutal to them as the Boko Haram insurgents themselves, which contributes to a growing opposition to the military and to President Goodluck Jonathan’s rule.
Inundated with news of frequent clashes between insurgents, civilians, and soldiers in the northern states, southern Nigerian civilians and politicians “have become inured to daily tales of horror that come out of the north,’ writes BBC Nigeria analyst Andrew Walker. In front of this backdrop of violence and political opposition, last month’s kidnapping began as just another tragic occurrence in a murky, ceaseless conflict.
Further delaying any significant government response was President Goodluck Jonathan and his party’s desire to distance themselves from the opposition party-ruled north and from events that reflect poorly on them generally in the upcoming election season. Unfortunately for them, Nigerians have crossed their normally steadfast religious and ethnic lines to demand that their government take action to rescue the girls, and many are also calling for the president to remove his bid for another term.
Until early May of this year, Nigerian rulers had been reluctant to accept any international military aid (although they quietly allowed American training and intelligence assistance during a mid-2000s rebellion). But with mounting pressure from a global social media campaign (#BringBackOurGirls), scrutiny from international representatives in Abuja for the World Economic Forum on Africa, and evidence that the military failed to respond to advanced warning of the kidnapping, the president finally relented.
The US, France, Britain, and Israel have all committed a range of resources, from surveillance drones to counterterrorism advisors, to the search and rescue effort. So far, very little has come of it. Airborne surveillance may not prove terribly useful, since it is likely that the girls have been split into smaller groups and hidden in the thickly canopied Sambisa forest. Although hostage negotiators were part of the international entourage, President Goodluck Jonathan has decided against trading Nigerian-held Boko Haram prisoners for the girls, as has been done to resolve past hostage situations.
So in the meantime, it seems that we wait and hope that the surveillance efforts and attempts at dialogue with the captors yield results. International military assistance in the broader Boko Haram conflict is limited because of the Nigerian military’s history of (and ongoing) human rights violations; as The Guardian reporter Chris McGreal writes, “US officials are not keen to see American forces yet again accused of complicity in crimes against Muslim civilians,” and other nations appear to have similar qualms.
Although some may lament the lack of international military support as violence and civilian deaths are on the rise, perhaps in the long run this will force the Nigerian elite to reckon with the increasingly untenable status quo of inequality and corruption. After all, no amount of ammunition will alleviate poverty or make the marginalized voices of the north heard in Abuja, and both ignorance and government-sanctioned violence will only strengthen groups like Boko Haram.
I found the following sources useful and recommend them for more information on the topic:
The Guardian’s Boko Haram article hub
BBC News overview of Boko Haram
Democracy Now! interview with activist Ijeoma Uduma and journalist Omoyele Sowore
Amnesty International report on advanced warning of Chibok attack
Washington Post overview of attack and conflict