THE LOST GIRLS OF NIGERIA’S FORBIDDEN FOREST

14116279234_e237e671a4_oBy Bailey Marsheck
Staff Writer

Earlier this month, after two and a half years of grief and uncertainty, 21 Nigerian families were reunited with their long-lost daughters.  An agreement was reached with the militant Islamic terrorist organization, Boko Haram on October 16 which placed the girls into the hands of the Nigerian government for a brief evaluation before they were finally allowed to reconnect with their loved ones.  Despite the encouraging appearance of this development on the surface, there are still 197 other families who are waiting in anguish to discover the fate of their kidnapped daughters.

The ordeal started in April 2014 when 276 teenage girls were staying at a government boarding school in Chibok, Nigeria in preparation for their final science exam of the academic year. During the middle of the night, members of Boko Haram razed the town, abducted its female students and loaded them onto trucks. Some were able to escape in transit by jumping off the vehicles but the majority of the girls still remain missing over two years later. Heart-wrenching stories told by parents who desperately trailed their kidnapped daughters in hopes of recovery suggest that they were taken to Boko Haram’s unknown base secluded deep somewhere within the 120 square kilometers that make up the Sambisa Forest. The fate of the remaining Chibok girls remains uncertain due to inner turmoil within the ranks of Boko Haram as well as the various challenges presented by the natural geography of the Sambisa Forest.

The terrorist organization was originally founded in 2003 by Mohammed Yusuf as a religious movement in response to the divergence between Nigeria’s Christian south and Muslim north. The group first came into conflict with the Nigerian government in 2009 when the movement transformed into a violent uprising. Boko Haram continued to become more radical and anti-government as Yusuf’s followers grew.  Eventually, a police operation led to the arrest of prominent members of the organization for possession of bomb-making equipment and other weapons. Yusuf was imprisoned and died in jail which aggravated the group’s anti-government philosophies beyond their breaking point. Boko Haram’s actions have only escalated since then, resulting in suicide bombings on government installations, kidnappings of both locals and foreigners, and allying themselves with the extremist group ISIS.

Boko Haram’s ultimate goal is to end the country’s religious division by creating a purely Islamic state. Their name translates from the Nigerian dialect of Hausa to mean “western education is forbidden,” but applies generally to include hatred for western culture and religion as a whole. The group rejects the notion of allowing women any form of education and made a conscious decision to abduct and transport the female students instead of simply killing them. In a message to the media, Yuusuf’s successor Abubakar Shekau claimed responsibility for the Chibok attack and encouraged girls to leave school to marry while additionally informing the public that the captured girls would be sold as slave brides. Captives who managed to escape have reported that many girls were in fact married off to the group’s soldiers and were forced to convert to Islam under the threat of physical and psychological abuse.

Despite conflicting sources regarding the agreement, the release of the 21 girls was confirmed to be facilitated by both the Swiss government and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Reports outlined payments ranging from cash sums to the release of Boko Haram commanders, the latter of which the Nigerian government vehemently denies. This negotiation seems to have opened up the possibility of future talks with Boko Haram, or at least with the faction responsible for the deal. The terrorist group underwent a complicated split in August, with a portion siding with original leader Abubakar Shekau while the other fraction opted to follow ISIS-backed Abu Musab al-Barnawi, the first son of Muhammed Yusuf. The dissonance is suspected to be over Shekau’s willingness to murder Muslims in pursuit of his end goals.

The release was negotiated with the ISIS-aligned faction, which has been much more willing to enter into talks regarding the release of prisoners since the two groups split. Since then, there have been efforts to expedite a proposed swap of 83 more girls.  However, doubts remain about whether the group is in control of the additional 100 missing girls as it is likely that the captives were split between the two factions. A further uncertainty in the situation persists over whether the remaining prisoners might be reluctant to return home in shame of their assumed forced marriages and potential pregnancies.

These diplomatic challenges are met by geographic ones too, as the Sambisa Forest serves as the last logistical obstacle to the rescue of the remaining girls. Boko Haram’s forces operate under the cover of brush so dense that it cannot be detected by aerial surveillance. Regular patrols by militants coupled with a minefield of Improvised Explosive Devices make penetrating the forest on foot a logistical nightmare. The Chibok abduction occurred near the height of Boko Haram’s power in 2014 and since then the Nigerian army has been reclaiming territory in the surrounding state of Borno city-by-city in a tiresome campaign that is only further prolonged by the sect’s propensity for guerilla tactics. The army has started pushing their forces into the forest in an attempt to oust Boko Haram from their final major Nigerian stronghold. Yet, progress is slow and has been further impaired as the group’s camps are often found already abandoned. On October 2, the Nigerian military launched “Operation Forest Storm” which was an airstrike offensive meant to cripple key bases within the forest. While this increased the possibility of collateral damage, the ground assault has simply taken too long and been ineffective. Nigeria’s government and citizens at large have grown increasingly eager to end Boko Haram’s harmful influence on the country and move past the years of armed conflict.

But questions still remain.  Where are the remaining Chibok girls located within the vast Sambisa forest? Are they with the Shekau-aligned portion of Boko Haram or the ISIS faction? Are they still alive? Have they been radicalized? Have they stealthily been whisked to another hidden location? Will a second deal for the additional 83 girls come to fruition, and if so, in what terms?

While the return of the initial 21 girls may have ended this tragic saga for a few, many more families are left to wait without answers. The only way to discover the true fate of the Chibok girls is to penetrate into Sambisa and retrieve Boko Haram’s secrets from within the darkness of Nigeria’s forbidden forest and cast them into the light.

Image by Michael Fleshman

 

AN INSECURE DEMOCRACY: WHAT NIGERIA STANDS TO LOSE IN ITS NEXT PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS

By Andrew Muse-Fisher
Staff Writer

In the past year, mainstream news outlets have accentuated Nigeria’s extremist Boko Haram, reporting how the group has kidnapped, bombed and murdered Nigerians to promote their Islamic values. Though the threat that Boko Haram poses is the nation’s foremost security problem, it is only one item of debate between the two presidential candidates. With the election scheduled for February 14, incumbent Goodluck Jonathan and challenger Muhammadu Buhari are pushing their opposing policies, but both are testing the limits of Nigeria’s infant democracy.

Boko Haram formed in 2002 in Nigeria’s northeast, a predominantly Muslim region. Only in 2009 did the group take to widespread violence to make its political statements. Its goals to promote sharia law and “forbid western education” have led to the deaths of around 5,000 Nigerians [1]. Most recently, Boko Haram has taken to large-scale assaults on cities in the northern region of the country, hinting at the growing strength and ambitions of the group.

In spite of the upcoming elections, President Jonathan has taken a less than stern stance on fighting the insurgents. Rather than focusing on boosting military efforts, he has passed off the issue as a regional problem. Though he has promised to rebuild villages razed by Boko Haram, President Jonathan has drawn accusations of posturing from Mr. Buhari. As a former military leader, Mr. Buhari has had no difficulties in gaining popularity with his campaign platform, built upon the promise of eradicating “the first problem of the country.” While Boko Haram has divided Nigeria’s political landscape, it has distracted the nation from working towards sturdier foundations as a developing economy.

Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy, mainly because it is also Africa’s leading oil producer and exporter. Nigeria’s reliance on oil is a prime example of a resource curse; that is, Nigeria has relied on oil for economic growth rather than expand its other industries. Its dependence is particularly relevant now that the increased international supply has forced exporters in Nigeria to lower prices. This has caused the Nigerian Naira to fall to record lows. Though the government is aware of the crippling effect of oil dependence, it is not likely to implement substantial stabilization efforts until the elections are over.

To counteract the resource curse, President Jonathan has announced the necessity of reviving agriculture, an industry that was overshadowed upon the discovery of oil fields. In a recent speech at the 2015 Agriculture Festival, he labeled himself as the “farmers’ president” and went on to say that “agriculture is now the lifeline for Nigeria.” If he is successful in increasing the output and efficiency of Nigeria’s agriculture sector, President Jonathan will be able to aid rural economies and increase the country’s trade potential.

While Jonathan discusses forming a less volatile economy, Buhari aims to increase accountability of those overseeing the economy. Recently, Mr. Buhari announced his goal to eliminate corruption within the Nigerian government. Nigeria has a long history of corruption at all levels of the government, which has typically included skimming government funds or entitling benefits to oil companies in exchange for a percentage of the profits. Mr. Buhari sees corruption as the main obstacle between Nigeria and a strong economy. However, because of such an entrenched pattern of corruption and the nature of campaign promises—President Jonathan has himself been accused of corruption—it is easy to take Mr. Buhari’s goal with a grain of salt.

The upcoming elections carry greater magnitude considering that Nigeria’s democracy is only 16 years old. Because of enduring tension between the Islamic military leaders of the North and the more Christian leaders of the South, the country uses a system called zoning to balance power [2]. Zoning requires that if a president is from the north, the vice president must be from the south, and vice versa. Furthermore, when a president’s term is up, the next president must come from the opposite region. When President Umaru Yar’Adua, a northerner, died in 2010, then-vice president Jonathan took over as president [3]. Because he is running for the office, President Jonathan has broken the zoning rule. His blatant disregard for rules, informal or not, brings into question whether or not Jonathan is a truly democratic leader. However, if he wins, he will prove the people’s desire for economic reorganization and reform over the necessity for democratic procedure. If Mr. Buhari is elected, it will stem from his promise of security. His history as a dictator will be proven irrelevant as long as he can provide safety from Boko Haram.

Nigeria needs stability if it is to remain Africa’s most economically powerful nation. This entails fighting back any and all terrorist threats, as well as implementing long-term reforms to diversify the nation’s economy and to reduce corruption. And because Nigeria houses two main contentious regional groups, these stabilizing efforts only carry a guarantee if done under cooperative terms. Both candidates are capable of implementing at least some of the necessary reforms, but if either refrains from acting on democratic terms, Nigeria risks bending to each economic and military threat alike.

Image by World Economic Forum

Notes

[1] Sergie, Mohammed A., and Toni Johnson. “Nigeria’s Boko Haram and Ansaru.”Council on Foreign Relations (2014): n. pag. Web.

[2] Campbell, John. “Electoral Violence in Nigeria.” Council on Foreign Relations(2010): n. pag. Web.

[3] Ibid.

#BRINGBACKOURGIRLS AND THE LIMITS OF INTERNATIONAL ACTION

by Rashika Rakibullah
Staff Writer

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