by Rashika Rakibullah
The recent kidnapping and disappearance of 284 Nigerian schoolgirls by the Islamist group Boko Haram has captured the world’s attention, sparked the popular Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls and brought attention to the tumultuous situation in Africa’s most populous country. The organization has released videos claiming to have converted the girls to Islam and speaking of their plans to sell them into slavery or marry them off to their members. Although the kidnapping is the most prominent incident to date, the conflict in Nigeria between militant Islamic groups and the secular government and Christian minority dates back to the late 1990s. Boko Haram is the largest such militant group and has existed since 2002. Since then, they have carried out numerous bombings, assassinations and other attacks that have claimed approximately 10,000 lives in the last decade. Despite the worldwide concern for the missing girls, it is unclear how the Nigerian government—even with the support of the international community—can bring them back, given the nature of the conflict.
Founded by a university-educated, English-speaking man named Muhammad Yusuf, Boko Haram’s stated goal is to establish an Islamic state in Nigeria based on Shariah law. They oppose all aspects of Westernization, which they believe has corrupted the country; they see it as the basis of the crime and lawlessness that is prevalent throughout the nation. According to the group, activities that are deemed “Western” include voting in elections, wearing Western-style shirts and pants, and attending non-religious schools. Proponents of Boko Haram’s version of Islam insist that participation in such activities are “haram,” or forbidden and unlawful. They are especially critical of girls receiving education, arguing that they should instead be married. Despite its religious affiliation, Boko Haram does not discriminate when it comes to victims—ordinary Muslims and Christians, religious authorities, and followers of Nigeria’s tribal religions have all been kidnapped, assassinated, or attacked by the group.
For the first seven years after its founding, Boko Haram existed peacefully for the most part. Yusuf established schools and religious centers in remote, poverty-stricken areas, attracting students and followers from throughout the country as well as neighboring nations. In 2009, however, Yusuf was killed while in government custody and leadership of the group transferred to Abubakar Shekau, the current head. That same year, the government intensified its efforts to suppress the group, carrying out military operations against the organization’s infrastructure and jailing or killing many members. This was a turning point for Boko Haram, and the organization soon began a deadly insurgency in an attempt to overthrow the secular (but mostly Christian-led) government. In the state of Borno, where the kidnapping of the girls occurred, confrontation with the military led to a state of emergency being declared in May 2013. It is still in place today.
At the root of the conflict between Boko Haram supporters and the rest of Nigerian society are the country’s religious demographics, borne from Nigeria’s colonial history. Muslims constitute the majority of the population (50%) by a narrow margin and live mainly in the northern part of the country. Meanwhile, Christians make up 48% and inhabit the central and southern regions. The geographical split is the result of two distinct areas having been unified by the British into one protectorate during its occupation, despite the ethnolinguistic, social, economic, and political differences between the two. This resulted in differing conditions in the two halves of the country, a division that continued through independence in 1960, sparked a brutal civil war in the late ‘60s and still exists to this day. The oil-rich, Christian South has always enjoyed greater economic success due to its coastal location while the poorer Muslim North has struggled to achieve the same level of prosperity. This has exacerbated existing tensions between the various ethnic and religious groups.
Following independence and the civil war, the country was ruled by military dictatorships until 1999, when Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian, became Nigeria’s first democratically elected President. His administration was followed by the short rule of Umaru Yar’Adua, a Muslim, after which current President Goodluck Jonathan, also a Christian, came to power in 2010. The move towards democratization was accompanied by a new Constitution, enacted in 1999, which enshrined the right to freedom of religion and the right to change religions. In response to the Nigerian government’s evolution into a mainly Christian-led and nominally secular state, groups like the Boko Haram emerged to counter what they saw as the eradication of Nigeria’s Islamic history and identity. Since 2000, they have succeeded in implementing Shariah law in 12 northern states and have been vocal of their desire to continue the trend.
As mentioned, the kidnapping is by far the most prominent of Boko Haram’s recent actions and has prompted global outrage and calls for action from dignitaries such as First Lady Michelle Obama. Unfortunately, it is unclear what the best action to take would be at this point. Earlier this week, the Nigerian government committed to sending its military after Boko Haram, a move heralded by the international community after weeks of inaction. There is no guarantee, however, that the military will be successful in combating Shekau and his men. Armed forces have been actively battling Boko Haram for the past few years but have proved to be woefully incompetent in combating the insurgency. In one particular episode, authorities announced that Shekau had been killed during clashes with the police in 2009, suggesting that with his death would come the decline of the group’s influence. The next year, he suddenly appeared in videos released by Boko Haram, proving he was alive and well, shaming the Nigerian government.
There have also been calls for the United States and other global powers to intervene, and President Obama has already sent a group of military and law enforcement officials to aid in the search for the girls. Foreign interference in the conflict, however, is also not an optimal strategy. Boko Haram are by definition anti-West; they exist to resist Western influence on Nigeria. For Western powers to become involved seems at best counterproductive, as involvement could lead to further (and intensified) violence. Worse, it could also legitimize the group’s mission and goals to Nigerians aware of the United States’ deplorable history of recent foreign interventions. As reported in a popular article on the blog “Compare Afrique” this week, the U.S. routinely sends costly military missions to various parts of Africa for unknown reasons with unknown results in the unspecified name of “national interest.” Most of these are covert, and so we don’t know the merit or stakes of these missions, but what we do know is disheartening: drone attacks, U.S.-backed coups that topple elected officials and support for questionable regimes. Many have also pointed to parallels between this situation and U.S. involvement in Uganda following the #Kony2012 campaign, another social media driven cause that affected U.S. foreign policy in Africa, but with no tangible results to show except wasted manpower and resources.
As this article goes to press, Boko Haram has offered to return the girls in exchange for the release of 4,000 of its members and supporters who are currently imprisoned. For their part, the Nigerian government has indicated that they are participating in negotiations with the group, although they have ruled out a prisoner exchange. While negotiating with terrorists is not a perfect solution for any government, Nigerian leaders would do well to recognize that it may be the only viable choice to ensure the safety of the girls without causing further collateral damage through military action. Whatever the course of action chosen by the Nigerian government or its Western allies, the return of the girls would only mean “winning the battle” instead of the war over Nigeria’s future. The safe return of the girls would not mean the elimination of Boko Haram—rather, this incident seems to have bolstered the group’s confidence by bringing the world’s attention to their relatively small, regional-level organization. For a lasting and effective solution to be conceived, Nigerian lawmakers, politicians and citizens will first have to deal with the poverty, rampant corruption, weak infrastructures and institutions, and lack of educational opportunities that plague the country. Unfortunately, these are objectives that Goodluck Jonathan’s administration is either unwilling or unable to prioritize. Until these structural issues are addressed, Boko Haram will continue to strengthen its ability to recruit from an under-educated population long disillusioned with the lack of proper governance in their country. Nigeria must continue its journey towards democratization—and it must do it alone. The United States, and everyone around the world concerned about the 284 girls, should offer the Nigerian people their concern and support without succumbing to the temptation to intervene. After all, as Doug Bandow wrote in Forbes earlier this week: “only Nigerians can save Nigeria.”
Image by Stephen D. Melkisethian