Do We Really Care If Muslim Extremists Kidnap 300 Girls in Nigeria?
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.
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