By Mahir Ali
7 May 2014
Africa’s largest country — in terms of both its population and the size of its economy — is today hosting a World Economic Forum (WEF) event where regional leaders and China’s prime minister will discuss the continent’s strategies for growth.
One can be reasonably sure, though, that one topic that has been concentrating minds across the host nation for the past three weeks will not feature on the agenda of the international gathering in Abuja.
On the night of April 14, the odious outfit known as Boko Haram raided a school in Chibok, in Nigeria’s north-eastern state of Borno and abducted more than 300 schoolgirls. About 50 or so managed to escape early on, either from the trucks they were being transported in, or from the camp where the terrorists were holding them.
Borno is frequently described as Boko Haram’s heartland and has long been under a state of emergency; with most schools shut down on account of frequent armed attacks by a militia whose Hausa nomenclature translates roughly as “western education is forbidden.” Scores of schoolchildren have previously been killed by Boko Haram in Borno and neighbouring states.
The army, which is supposed to be combating the obscurantist militia, initially reacted to the Chiboko outrage with a statement that claimed about 100 girls had been kidnapped and most of them had subsequently escaped. It was compelled to retract this piece of misinformation shortly afterwards, but the number of victims has remained uncertain until this week, with the latest reports indicating that 276 girls are still missing.
Last Sunday, shortly after President Goodluck Jonathan offered his first official comment on the unprecedented crime, a video surfaced with a chilling message purportedly from Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shehau, in which he declares: “I abducted your girls. I will sell them in the market, by Allah. I will sell them off and marry them off.
“There is a market for selling humans. Women are slaves. I want to assure my Muslim brothers that Allah says slaves are permitted in Islam…”
There had by then already been reports suggesting the girls were being sold off or forced into marriage, ostensibly as sex slaves.
There have, not surprisingly, been demonstrations in towns and cities across Nigeria demanding the rescue of the students, whose whereabouts, at least initially, were apparently an open secret. The protests are likely to mount in the wake of Shehau’s brazen claim of responsibility and Jonathan’s hugely disappointing address to the nation, in which he confessed his ignorance on several fronts while mundanely stating the obvious: That no effort should be spared to liberate the girls.
Well, yes — but the question is, why has it not been attempted thus far? Nigeria, after all, is a country where, since independence in 1960, military rule has been more common than a civilian dispensation. Its army clearly isn’t a particularly weak institution. In common with militaries elsewhere, when it does mount operations against groups such as Boko Haram, its violence is all too often indiscriminate, thereby alienating the civilians it is supposed to protect. In villages that have borne the brunt of assaults by both the military and terrorists, it is inevitably common for villagers to fear both forces with equal intensity.
That does not explain, however, why the army has not done its duty in this particular instance. What is perhaps even more bizarre is the level of thinking at the presidential palace, revealed on Sunday by first lady Patience Jonathan’s interaction with activists demanding government action on behalf of the kidnapped girls. She reportedly accused the women of themselves representing Boko Haram and suggested that the mass abduction was a lie invented to diminish her husband’s chances of re-election next year.
After the meeting, three of the activists were apparently taken in for questioning by the police. It’s obviously easier to victimize the protesters than to apprehend the culprits — but does it make any sense, at any level?
The cancerous growth of Boko Haram is something the Nigerian state has signally failed to arrest in recent years. The terrorists don’t only target schools, students and teachers — as recent bomb blasts in Abuja and elsewhere suggest, random destruction of lives and property is also very much a part of their agenda.
In his address on Sunday, Goodluck Jonathan facetiously claimed the state was succeeding in subduing the insurgency. A couple of years ago, he frankly admitted that government ranks included Boko Haram sympathizers. It is widely assumed that the group has also infiltrated the army.
There are innumerable parallels between Boko Haram and the Taliban, not least in terms of their obscurantist mindset and the limp-wristed state response to an endless series of outrages. Unlike Nawaz Sharif, though, Jonathan has ruled out negotiations. Particularly after Shehau’s latest intervention, who could seriously blame him? The obvious alternative course of action — something that Nigeria’s generally mild-mannered Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka has been recommending for years — has yet to manifest itself. The popular upsurge in Nigeria in the wake of the latest unspeakable atrocity provides some scope for hoping that the state will finally act decisively to obliterate the growing menace. Naturally, the lives and welfare of the abducted girls must be an absolute priority. Looking back a few years hence, it would also provide a degree of satisfaction to be able to pinpoint the moment when Boko Haram sealed its own fate by going much too far.