The world isn’t just aware of the plight of three hundred girls kidnapped from their boarding school in Nigeria now. It has become, finally, invested. Globally, people are demanding that the Nigerian government do more to find the 276 girls still missing, while a hashtag, #BringBackOurGirls, unites the web behind their cause.
The world is eager to see the girls, stolen away in the night three weeks ago, returned. But part of the reason why the girls remain abducted lies in just how the government has waged its war against the terrorists who carried out the kidnapping over the last half a decade. And the terrorists who hold them captive remain an unpredictable factor, leaving even experts unsure just how to bring about their freedom from the men determined to prevent them from gaining an education.
Abubakar Shekau, leader of the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram, on Monday appeared in a video taking credit for the kidnapping of the girls from the Government Girls Secondary School in the town of Chibok, located in Nigeria’s northeast Borno state. In the message, Shekau threatened to sell the girls he had kidnapped, saying “God instructed me to sell them, they are his properties and I will carry out his instructions.”
The Nigerian military is facing criticism for how it has handled the kidnapping since the first hours after the girls were taken. Once they realized that the students were missing, family members went searching in the Sambisa Forest, one of the hideouts of Boko Haram. When told that they were near where the abductors had set up camp, the searchers returned to Chibok, according to the Associated Press, and appealed to the soldiers present to join them into the forest. The soldiers refused. The next day, Nigerian media reported that the military had managed to free the majority of the girls taken. Nigeria’s defense ministry was forced to withdraw that claim only a day later.
“The operation is going on and we will continue to deploy more troops,” Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Chris Olukolade told the Associated Press. That was now two weeks ago.
Complicating matters further, since the Boko Haram uprising commenced in 2009-2010 as an institution the group has mutated to the point that negotiation to secure the girls’ release will be difficult at best. Lesley Anne Warner, Africa analyst at the CNA Corporation, told ThinkProgress in a phone interview that since Nigeria first took up the fight against Boko Haram, the government’s strategy against them has resulted in very little credibility in terms of being able to deliver the improvement in governance or service delivery needed to address Boko Haram’s grievances. “And so the group over the course of the years has become more and more radical and it’s actually not possible to negotiate with the leaders of Boko Haram right now,” she said, describing instances where efforts on the part of moderates in the group to negotiate were met with either denial of their membership in the group or public beheadings carried out by Boko Haram leadership.
Everything that they’ve done up to this point … has been really trying to get international focus and to highlight the ineffectiveness of the Nigerian government”
That doesn’t mean that negotiations haven’t been occurring. “The only way to get the girls back is through negotiation, according to an Islamic scholar who has mediated the release of previous hostages,” the Associated Press reports. “The scholar, who remained anonymous because his position receiving messages from Boko Haram is sensitive, said the militants are willing to free the girls for a ransom, but have not specified how much.” Previously, Nigeria’s Channel 4 News interviewed a hostage negotiator who claimed to be in contact with Boko Haram and said, “It would not be hard to engineer a deal. It looks like they want to release them.” The same negotiator also cautioned that “kidnappers have warned, however, that attempts by the military to launch a rescue attempt ‘may result in the deaths of many of the captives.’”
But those efforts haven’t garnered the release of any of the kidnapped girls to date. And according to crisis management firm Red24′s chief Africa analyst Ryan Cummings the new found attention to Boko Haram may be just what the group wants. “The issue with the kidnapping with me is it was conducted with the intention of grabbing of international headlines,” Cummings told ThinkProgress in a phone interview. Any attempts by the military to use a forceful option to rescue the kidnapped girls could be a massive risk to them, Cummings said, confirming the warnings of the negotiator Nigerian media interviewed.
“Everything that they’ve done up to this point from the kidnapping to claiming responsibility when they did, has been really trying to get international focus and to highlight the ineffectiveness of the Nigerian government,” Cummings said. “Especially with the Chibok kidnapping, the more focus, the better Boko Haram’s bargaining position,” he said, adding that this spotlight and need to garner the girl’s release forces the government into the position where they will need to cede to the terrorists’ demands.
A woman takes part in a march demanding Nigeria’s government find the missing girls
For five years now, Boko Haram — whose name translates to “Western education is sinful” — has sought to impose its harsh view of Islam upon the rest of Nigeria, launching bombings and conducting massacres in mosques, churches, government facilities, and schools. The non-profit International Crisis Group estimates that the group has killed more than 4,000 people since it began its campaign. At least 1,500 Nigerians have died as the result of the conflict this year alone. The rise of the group has also contributed to Nigeria having the most outbreaks of polio in the world, as workers attempting to vaccinate the population have come under attack. And now, even if it’s part of their strategy, Boko Haram is receiving more international attention than ever for its role in kidnapping Borno’s girls.
So why has such a brutal and heinous group managed to not only avoid defeat at the hands of the Nigerian government but remain intact and growing in reach?
“I think the main problem with Nigeria is they have a very heavy-handed approach to countering Boko Haram,” Warner told ThinkProgress. The strategy the government is pursuing, Warner said, is lacking in both a political element to address the concerns of those who might support Boko Haram and a dedication to protecting civilians in the areas that they’re occupying. “So as a result, they’re unable to rely on human intelligence because no one wants to talk to the security forces about what’s going on in the area,” Warner said.
Reports from human rights groups operating in Nigeria bear out Warner’s analysis. Security forces have “allegedly engaged in excessive use of force and other human rights violations, such as burning homes, physical abuse, and extrajudicial killings,” according to a Human Rights Watch report released in 2012. More recently, Amnesty International just this March accused the army of killing some 600 people, mostly former detainees who were rounded up following a Boko Haram attack on army barracks. None of the men killed were given a trial before their death, the international rights group claims.
Those sort of tactics “alienated the population living in the areas the task force is operating in,” Warner said. “And so in a situation like this where the girls are missing, they don’t have seem to have good leads on where the girls are, they can’t really rely on the population for intelligence.” Add in that military is now facing criticism over the fact that in the face of an actual moment where the locals wanted them to take action, the soldiers refused to aid in the search, and it’s easy to conclude that if Boko Haram’s goal was to make the Nigerian government look ineffective, it’s working.
The United States has offered to fill in some of the information gap Nigerian president Goodluck Johnathan’s government is experiencing, according to a CNN report, but Warner told ThinkProgress that the U.S.’ technological superiority won’t likely make much of a difference in the pursuit. “What they need right now is not just technology, they need the human intelligence,” she said. “And unless they’ve already built that trust with the population — they can’t surge trust at this point. I think the lack of human intelligence is going to impede their operations.”
I think the main problem with Nigeria is they have a very heavy-handed approach to countering Boko Haram”
On top of that, according the Jamestown Foundation’s Jacob Zenn, even those offensives against Boko Haram have been less than effective. “The government has not sufficiently resourced the troops in the northeast nor established emergency measures to prevent against abductions,” he wrote to ThinkProgress in an email, adding the kidnapping in Chibok was “neither the first nor will it be the last such abduction so long as there is no strategy in place.” That prediction, emailed on Monday night, seemed proved true on Tuesday with reports that Boko Haram had kidnapped another eight girls in Borno.
Zenn continued on to say that Nigeria lacks a regional strategy for countering Boko Haram, adding to the difficulty in pinning down the group, as there’s “almost no coordination between Nigeria and its neighbors, such as Cameroon, Chad and Niger, which could prevent Boko Haram’s cross-border operations, as in the case of these kidnapped girls.” Local elders in Chibok told reporters last week that several of the kidnapped girls had been taken across the border into Chad and Cameroon. There, they said, the underage girls were “married” off to their captors for the sum of 2,000 Nigerian niara — or $12 US. One report in Nigerian media says one of the escapees described a situation where “young female captives were raped up to 15 times a day, forced to convert to Islam and had their throats cut if they refused.”
It’s now been three weeks since the girls were abducted, led from their beds by men in army uniforms promising to keep them safe before being driven off in a convoy, their school on fire behind them. The frustration with the government has grown exponentially in the days since, with now regular protests taking place in the capital city, Abuja, demanding that the government take action. Use of the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls has provided a rallying point for the world to unite behind the mothers, aunts, and sisters of the missing. Some frustrated activists online decided to aid in the hunt in their own way through publishing the names of those missing in the hopes of drawing further attention to their plight and aiding in their rescue. According to scholars of the region and other activists, however, this publicizing of their names presents a threat to the girls’ well-being.
“Boko Haram could be monitoring Twitter, selecting out named girls for special abuse,” tweet out Laura Seay, an assistant professor at Colby College, “Err on the side of caution.” In their most recent report on the kidnapping, the Associated Press noted that most of those they interviewed preferred to speak anonymously, “fearing that giving their names would also reveal the girls’ identities and subject them to possible stigmatization in this conservative society.”
All of this leaves the international community, governments and individuals alike, struggling to decide how best to help the missing girls. Aside from the intelligence sharing CNN reported, details of how the United States is offering to help Nigeria find the girls are still lacking even as the list of pledges to do just that grows. “The kidnapping of hundreds of children by Boko Haram is an unconscionable crime, and we will do everything possible to support the Nigerian government to return these young women to their homes and to hold the perpetrators to justice,” Secretary of State John Kerry said this weekend. On Monday the Huffington Post report that Attorney General Eric Holder would be offering law enforcement assistance to Nigeria to aid in the search. And on Tuesday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki announced that the U.S. had offered — and President Johnathan has welcomed — sending a team of “experts” to help find the girls.
But the trail is beginning to run cold. The number missing remains locked at 276 after rising over the past three weeks. Boko Haram continues to launch attacks, including one against the town of Gamboru Ngala just Monday. According to one resident, “They burned the market, the customs office, the police and almost all shops in the city and killed people but I do not know how.” And the families of the missing continue to hope to see their sisters, nieces, cousins, and daughters again.