The Chibok girls: Nigeria’s side of the story

The Chibok girls: Nigeria’s side of the story

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Why has it been so difficult for the Nigerian government to fight the scourge of Boko Haram, which has infiltrated so many sectors of the society? Has the government really done nothing to try to get the Chibok girls back? And is Boko Haram really about religion?

Jamani Jagana
Jamani Jagana who escaped from Boko Haram. Photograph: Chika Oduah for the Observer

The kidnapping of schoolgirls from the small town of Chibok in Borno state, north-eastern Nigeria, just over two months ago caused an international uproar in condemnation of the slow response by Nigerian authorities.

Nigeria’s leaders and security services were accused of sitting back and ignoring the Boko Haram insurgency in the country. Their initial response to the kidnappings, as seen by outsiders, could have been considered slow and inadequate – that is true. But what other factors are affecting the situation in Nigeria, particularly in the northeast of the country? Why has it been so difficult for President Goodluck Jonathan’s government to fight the scourge of Boko Haram, which has infiltrated so many sectors of Nigerian society?

Firstly, in looking at the kidnapping of the schoolgirls on 14 April, it seems that very little is known about what really happened. Figures of ‘276 girls,’ ‘nearly 300’ and ‘over 200’ have been bandied about. How many girls were there? And how many have escaped or returned to their parents? [The most recent reports put the number of missing girls at 219.] The ignorance around this figure is indicative of the way in which this terrible kidnapping has been shrouded in rumour, uncertainty and hearsay. There seems to be a complete lack of communication – or, at the very least, very poor information management – about what has happened and what is being done.

Borno state, where the girls were kidnapped, is a vast terrain of 70,000 square kilometres – almost the size of a country like Ireland. There are over 30,000 schools in the state, making it impossible for the authorities to have stationed security police at every school, despite Boko Haram’s threats. It is also a vastly underdeveloped area with inadequate infrastructure, and for decades little attention has been paid to economic development in the region. However, a proposed plan in the new budget – a sort of new ‘Marshall Plan’ announced by the Jonathan government – will hopefully promote development.

One should also ask: has the government really done nothing to try and get the girls back? Insiders close to the search say that a lot has been done to find the girls, and that they have, in fact, been located. Many actors – both from inside and outside Nigeria – are involved in the search. Several Nigerian leaders, including former president Olusegun Obasanjo, have offered their support in this regard. One should recall that it was Obasanjo who visited the family of the slain first leader of Boko Haram, Mohammed Yusuf, in 2002.

The overwhelming outrage against the inaction of the government is in many cases not justified, but rather due to the failure of the Nigerian government to adequately communicate what it has been doing. An information centre has been established in Abuja to provide daily media briefings on what the government is doing to safely return the girls to their families. (That said, the recent hiring of an American PR firm to deal with the fallout from the Boko Haram kidnappings is further proof that the Nigerian government does not have a clue about communication or public relations.)

Boko-Haram-is-believed-to-be-responsible-for-the-blast-that-destroyed-this-hotel-and-killed-at-least-10-people-in-Bauchi-state-Nigeria-on-the-28th-of-June.-Photograph-EPA-1000-x-600
Boko Haram is believed to be responsible for the blast that destroyed this hotel and killed at least 10 people in Bauchi state, Nigeria, on the 28th of June. This was followed the next day by attacks on churches in villages near Chibok, Borno State, and a car bomb explosion in a market in the north-eastern city of Maiduguri. Just days before there had been explosions in the biggest shopping centre in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, which killed 24 people, and an attack on a medical college in Kano city, killing at least eight. Photograph: EPA

Which Boko Haram are we talking about?

The problem of Boko Haram is, of course, far wider than this incident – as is evident from the many attacks, bombings and the recent terrible massacre of villagers in four towns in Borno. All Nigerians know that Boko Haram is much more than just a small bunch of extremists led by a seemingly fanatic Abubakar Shekau. As Kayode Fayemi, Governor of Nigeria’s Ekiti state, and others have put it, there is the ‘religious Boko Haram,’ the ‘economic Boko Haram’ and the ‘political Boko Haram.’

The ‘religious Boko Haram’ is, of course, the most well known, given the inflammatory statements by its leaders of fighting a religious ‘jihad.’ But what is less known is that the group, probably made up of several independent cells, terrorises both Muslims and non-Muslims in Nigeria. If its aim is to enforce rigid sharia law in the north, most orthodox Muslims do not approve of its methods.

Last month, for example, the Sultan of Sokoto, a distinguished and well-respected religious and spiritual leader in Nigeria, denounced the actions of the sect, which he described as ‘ungodly acts of terror being unleashed on Muslims.’ Links between Boko Haram and other jihadist movements in northern Mali and Somalia have been identified through outside military operations in these areas. This strengthens its self-proclaimed status as a group fighting global jihad – its main rallying cry for recruitment.

This recruitment is, however, more often than not linked to the economic underdevelopment of the north – what one might call the ‘economic Boko Haram.’ The utter desperation of many young inhabitants of the north, whom Nobel-prize-winning author Wole Soyinka labelled ‘the idle militants,’ drive some to join the sect and become pawns in the hands of political leaders to pursue their selfish interests.

The effect of climate change should also be taken into account. For example, the drying up of the Lake Chad basin – especially Baga at the border with Chad, which was once the breadbasket of the region – has contributed to the economic decline of these regions. Agriculture and livestock farming as a source of employment have been seriously affected, which contributes to rising unemployment and idleness.

Presidential elections approaching

In the run-up to the presidential elections in February 2015, the political importance of what is happening in Nigeria cannot be ignored. Is it too far-fetched to say some politicians are happy to see Jonathan with his back against the wall, so to speak, even though these leaders do not openly support Boko Haram? Will the terror wreaked by the insurgency in northern Nigeria not discourage citizens, out of fear, from voting for established candidates?

Nigeria is facing one of its biggest challenges since the 1960s civil war

Ironically, while in many places in Africa elections very often see heightened tensions and even violent conflict, these polls could serve to appease the political situation. Debate is raging whether it is proper for Jonathan to stand as candidate in February 2015, having already served more than four years. Technically, though, he is only in his first term as elected president, having replaced the late former president, Umaru Yar’Adua, in May 2010 and being re-elected in 2011. Of course, the ruling party’s ‘gentleman’s agreement,’ which stipulates the rotation of presidents between the north and the south, is again being touted. But what if Nigeria turns the page on this chapter and the opposition chooses to back another candidate from the south-south – the Niger Delta and adjacent states?

Nigeria is facing one of its biggest challenges since the 1960s civil war – a challenge that will need the support of the rest of Africa and the international community to be successfully defeated. Dealing with Boko Haram is clearly not a simple challenge and it will need a multi-layered response.

Locating and freeing the missing Chibok girls (as well as the boys, girls and women kidnapped two weeks ago) is an important first step in winning this battle, but a lot more lies ahead to restore security in the country. Only then will Nigerians truly benefit from the boom that is evident from the re-based figures, elevating Nigeria to Africa’s richest nation.

This article was first published by the Institute for Security Studies

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