The Western media is (belatedly) outraged over the abduction of Nigerian schoolgirls. But an international reaction is exactly what terrorist group Boko Haram wants, writes UN adviser Robert Johnson in Nairobi.
The saga of the brazen April 14 abduction of Nigerian schoolgirls (including both Christians and Muslims, the former claimed as of yesterday to have already been converted to Islam) will hit one full month tomorrow. The kidnapping has filled media space across the rest of the world since that date, with Australia joining in somewhat tardily after a nudge from Crikey.
As Guy Rundle’s piece yesterday requires us to ask, what is it about this particular egregious violation of the rights of African children — and especially girls — that makes them “our children”, when we consider the raft of particularly egregious violations that fail to get such traction? Western countries and non-Muslim communities do not have a monopoly on outrage at these abductions. What is coming across as selective alarm by “outside” groups of concerned people needs a context, which Rundle touched upon.
As I saw first-hand while in Yemen last year, in many predominantly Muslim communities within the region the rights of girls evaporate when they are seen to have become women (usually with the onset of first menstruation), which means that all of these abducted girls are no longer seen by some as being due any particular protections — let alone rights — that they may have had as children. Their Boko Haram captors — and some others in Nigeria — view them as (young) women, not girls.
The “temptation” (Rundle’s word) to compare #BringBackOurGirls and “Kony 2012” is nevertheless valid for many Africans, even well beyond Nigeria’s borders. According to Nigerian writer Jumoke Balogun in The Guardian:
“[t]he United States military loves your hashtags because it gives them legitimacy to encroach and grow their military presence in Africa. Africom (United States Africa Command) … gained much from #KONY2012 and will now gain even more from #BringBackOurGirls …
“In 2013 alone, Africom carried out a total of 546 ‘military activities’ which is an average of one and half military missions a day. While we don’t know much about the purpose of these activities, keep in mind that Africom’s mission is to ‘advance US national security interests’.”
She points out that the Nigerian military is itself complicit in widespread human rights violations. A 2013 Nigerian human rights report claimed that “security forces are killing, torturing, illegally detaining and raping civilians in a fight to halt an Islamic uprising in northeast Nigeria”. Not that this should be linked to Africom’s support to the Nigerian military, including crisis response planning earlier this year. As Nigerian colleagues have pointed out, there has been outrage across local communities in Nigeria over the effects of ethnic- and tribal-based disregard or worse for many communities, including and especially in the north-east, where these abductions occurred.
This meant (apparently) little local surprise at revelations by Amnesty International that military authorities in both Damboa and Maiduguri (the bases closest to the town with the targeted school; the latter is where Boko Haram originated) had failed to react despite being “repeatedly alerted” to the impending attack some four hours before by both security and local officials. Even during the three hours afterwards, Boko Haram continued to parade around the town of Chibok (from where the girls were abducted) without meeting any government response. Such information included Boko Haram fighters on motorbikes asking for directions to the Government Girls’ Secondary School in Chibok.
“Unquestionably, Boko Haram has established a sense of “relevance” from the international outrage at its actions.”
The government has denied Amnesty’s claims, but it has also been badly stung by widespread criticism for failing to adequately act. The government tried to claim that a number of girls had been “rescued”, when those girls had escaped with no assistance from authorities. The government, fully three weeks after the abductions, could still not confirm the number of girls taken — and the estimate at that time increased markedly, offset only by those girls who had managed to escape. Soon after (early last week), a media report cited Nigerian police estimates that indicate that 331 girls had been abducted — much higher than most media reports of “around” or “at least” 200. That figure comprises 276 in captivity, 53 who have escaped and two who have died of snakebite.
Despite Boko Haram being present in some form since around 2002 (better known in earlier days as “the Nigerian Taliban”), it has not been on the radar of Western media until more recent years. After all, it was not until 2012 that United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton listed three members of Boko Haram for sanctions, but resisted listing Boko Haram as a terrorist organisation. Although she has actively joined in the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, her own State Department refused to place Boko Haram on the list of foreign terrorist organisations in 2011, after the group bombed the United Nations headquarters in Abuja. The refusal came despite the urging of the Justice Department, the FBI, the CIA, and over a dozen senators and congressmen.
That refusal evidently related to Clinton’s “assessment” that Boko Haram represented a local (north-eastern Nigeria) threat and no particular threat to US interests, as distinct from alternative views opposed to its listing on the basis that it would legitimise the group and enhance its status and linkages with similar groups across the larger region. (The Daily Beast has a detailed summary of those lobbying efforts.) In November 2013 (yes, just six months ago), Secretary of State John Kerry listed Boko Haram as a terrorist organisation.
But in those recent months, there have been reports that Boko Haram has actually been losing local support. This is attributed to the repudiation by largely Muslim communities of its more recent embrace of violent and brutal actions and sustained local Muslim opposition, which it sees the need to suppress. Although Boko Haram earlier this year expressed solidarity with al-Qaeda, it’s not so clear that the reverse is the case; even al-Qaeda is said to have kept some distance from Boko Haram due to its concern over the latter’s “casual” approach to the use of violence. Even so, it may have (it’s still debated) benefited from “seed money” back in 2002 from Osama bin Laden due to its potential as a key Nigerian ally.
Unquestionably, Boko Haram has established a sense of “relevance” from the international outrage at its actions. In this regard, it is not clear that #BringBackOurGirls is helping more than it is hindering, depending upon what is its primary objective. The first video by Boko Haram’s leader was chilling, and the reaction to it clearly encouraged him to further flex his muscles. The release yesterday of a second video, however, has — at the time of writing — appeared to open the way for negotiations, with the fate of the girls now more linked to a swap for the release of imprisoned militants than to being sold into slavery or forced marriages. (It needs to be noted, though, that around half the girls were not present in the video, with their whereabouts currently not known.)
But, with United Kingdom and United States military forces on the ground and an Israeli counter-terrorism team on its way, these Nigerian girls would appear to be a long way short of their freedom if it’s conditional upon the release of “Islamic terrorists”. Will #BringBackOurGirls maintain its current unqualified outrage?