Protesters in Lagos calling for government action to retrieve the 276 girls held by Boko Haram. Photograph: Sunday Alamba/AP
It’s three weeks since the terrorist group Boko Haram abducted 300 schoolgirls. But it’s the lack of action by a government that doesn’t seem to know what’s going on that is adding to the country’s torment. Guardian writers unravel the crisis
What exactly happened on 14 April?
On that night, residents in Chibok, in a remote corner of Nigeria‘s north-eastern Borno state, received phone calls warning them of an imminent attack from Boko Haram, the Islamist militant group. Residents in neighbouring villages had seen convoys with heavily armed insurgents heading towards the town, where a government school had specially opened for students to take final exams. A series of attacks on schools by Boko Haram – whose ideology opposes non-Qur’anic education – had forced mass closures in the state.
When the militants struck in the town, around 15 soldiers stationed in Chibok desperately held them off for almost an hour. But the soldiers were outnumbered and outgunned and no reinforcements arrived. By the time the assault ended almost five hours later, at least 300 schoolgirls had been carted away at gunpoint. Around 50 escaped by jumping off the back of trucks that headed deep into the vast Sambisa forest, a known hideout of militant training camps.
Desperate parents banded together with local youths, armed themselves with homemade weapons and rode motorbikes into the forest, a former nature reserve that covers 60,000 sq km. Community dwellers in the forest warned them against trying to find the militants.
The first official acknowledgment was two weeks in coming, and anger at the slow response fuelled growing protests in cities across the country. After almost three weeks of flip-flopping, President Goodluck Jonathan pledged to find the schoolgirls.
What is Boko Haram?
Like so many other militant groups, Nigeria’s Boko Haram is simultaneously less, and more, than meets the eye. Few of its adherents actually accept the name – which loosely translated from the local Hausa language as “western education is forbidden” – and prefer the official Arabic title which translates as “the union for propagation of the Prophet’s teachings and jihad”. Indeed, the idea of a union, movement or sect, better reflects Boko Haram’s real structure.
Formed in 2002 by a radical cleric, but growing more violent over recent years, it is this fractured nature that has, in part, given Boko Haram its resilience. Some within Boko Haram are hardline Sunni Salafis, others are less rigorous. Some pursue international links – to various bits of al-Qaida in the Maghreb – some stay local. Some seek secession, others want to overthrow the state militarily. Take out one, and another will fill the gap.
Successive crackdowns by Nigerian authorities have simply seen further radicalisation of Boko Haram factions and deepened the pool of potential members. Deep inequality, conflicts over land, a local history of sectarian violence, tensions between an alienated Muslim north and Christian south, a global backwash of violent conservative ideologies, poor education, atrocities committed by the security forces and many other factors have made recruitment easy.
But why pick on schoolgirls? Schools – and particularly female education – are seen as a bridgehead of “corrupting modernity”. Islamic extremism is also often as much about reasserting patriarchal and masculine authority as religion. Also, crucially, in the competitive world of militancy leaders, continuing spectacular attacks are the only guarantee of dominance. And the Chibok attack was undeniably spectacular.
Finally, there is simple revenge. Boko Haram began kidnapping women and girls from schools across north-east Nigeria last year after police detained family members of its commanders. “Since you are now holding our women, just wait and see what will happen to your own women,” leader Abubakar Shekau said in 2012. Now Nigeria is indeed waiting, increasingly nervously.
A picture taken from a 2013 video showing Boko Haram’s leader Abubakr Shekau. Photograph: AFP
What has the government done to get the girls back?
On 2 May, President Jonathan inaugurated a “fact-finding committee”. It was not, he insisted, a replacement for search and rescue of the schoolgirls. “This committee will be primarily concerned with providing public interface with all directly concerned in this tragedy,” he said. “The operation of the security and intelligence services will continue to intensify till our daughters are rescued and brought safely home to their families.”
In the meantime, the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) released the names of the Christian girls who were abducted. That provoked anger, partly at the clumsy sectarianism (the names of Muslim girls weren’t released in the list, subtitled “Daughters of Zion taken captive, to be treated as slaves and sold into marriage to unclean people”). Others, including parents, fear the public release of names could endanger the girls’ lives and that Christian girls may be targeted in future. The government does not appear to have its own list yet, and has urged parents to come forward to register their missing daughters.
Still, the steady swell of outrage from the international community has had a rare impact on Nigeria’s government, which has, belatedly, scrambled to appease protesters. Nigeria’s defence spokesperson agreed to meet the leaders of some 500 protestors who marched through the capital, Abuja, on Tuesday. The details of the meeting weren’t made public.
Bim Adewunmi and MM
Why did it take so long?
The shameful answer quite simply seems to be that no one made enough noise at first. Four days after the schoolgirls were taken, military spokesman Major General Chris Olukolade reported that most of 129 girls (the assumed number at the time) had been “rescued”. This statement was later retracted.
Boko Haram is not new, and its list of atrocities is long and varied. Indeed, it has carried out abductions and killings before – the group has killed hundreds of students in previous attacks. In July 2013, it claimed responsibility for an attack at Government secondary school in Mamudo in neighbouring Yobe State, which saw 42 students and staff killed, and left many wounded. In February this year, it attacked a dormitory at another school in Yobe and shot, stabbed and burned alive more than 40 students aged between 11 and 18. A 2012 report by Human Rights Watch detailed the group’s many attacks since 2009.
The day before the girls were abducted, Boko Haram carried out an audacious attack at Nyanya bus station in Abuja that killed more than 70 people. The abductions, so soon after this Abuja bomb – which for the first time came out of the backwaters of Borno and Yobe – may prove to be the last straw for Nigerians previously numbed by or too distant from Boko Haram attacks. “This is not the first time abductions have happened,” says Saratu, the team leader of the Testimonial Archives Project, who asks for her surname to be withheld. Her organisation interviews and documents the lives of people who have been affected by violence in north-eastern Nigeria. “This has been going on for half a decade. Boko Haram have had radical elements, which grew in prominence – and boldness – over the past three years, and it has been abducting girls ever since. If you read Human Rights Watch and Amnesty reports, you’ll read testimonies from young girls who talk about their ordeals. I’m sure our government knew this has been happening for years. So my guess is they figured: ‘What’s one more?’ They probably thought it would blow over.”
In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Tuesday, Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka said: “This is a government which is not only in denial mentally, but is in denial about certain obvious steps to take. It’s one of those really childlike situations that if you shut your eyes, you don’t exhibit the tactile evidence of the missing humanity here, that somehow the problem will go away.”
Perhaps, most damningly, no one has been held to account. BA
Damage from the second bomb attack in Nyanya on the outskirts of Abuja on 2 May. This blast killed 19; at least 70 were killed in the previous attack in April. Photograph: AFP
What’s the reaction in Nigeria?
Protesters in Lagos calling for government action to retrieve the 276 girls held by Boko Haram. Photograph: Sunday Alamba/AP
There have been protests, rallies and sit-ins across the country for more than a week now. In Lagos, traders shut down major markets in the city to denounce the abductions. Daily protests have been held every day in Abuja since 30 April. Representatives of the Chibok families travelled to Abuja to stage a sit-in.
Saratu was in Abuja attending the sit-ins with the families’ representatives and heard Chibok community leaders and others on the ground. “To hear them tell it, they reached out to the police, to the military and told them everything they know,” she says. “And cooperating so closely with the government and the security authorities didn’t yield any fruit. Keep in mind that, for a couple of days after the attack happened, we hear that the girls were still very much within the vicinity of Chibok.” Some family members attempted to go and look for their daughters to no avail.
“Confusion is the only thing that is clear about Chibok,” says Nigerian journalist Tolu Ogunlesi. “Each day we learn something that changes the way we see this thing. So, for example, we all thought it was a girls-only school and then we learned that boys also attend, but not as boarding students. Which is why they weren’t in school when the abductors came. That it took two weeks for this detail to come out tells you a lot about how this thing is being handled.”
Saratu believes the abductions may have been the final straw. “That bomb blast hit really close to people in Abuja, and a lot of middle-class people in Abuja,” she says. “For a lot of us, we had to make phone calls for the first time. A lot of these other bombings and abductions, they were people that we didn’t ‘know’. That’s not to say they didn’t care, but it was distant. But Nyanya happened twice within a short time [a second bomb claimed 19 lives in the suburb last week]. And then a mass abduction. It raised the temperature. In a lot of ways, it kind of primed us.” BA
How important was #BringBackOurGirls?
The #BringBackOurGirlshashtag took off on Twitter more than a week after the girls were taken, spearheaded by a former federal education minister, Oby Ezekesili, and other Nigerians with large followings on Twitter. It has since attracted the attention of the world’s media, and serves as a rallying cry for concerned observers. Just two days before the abduction and the bus station bomb, President Jonathan’s daughter got married. In online protests, Twitter users contrasted photos of the wedding and a crying girl. Beneath was written: “She got as presidential wedding; they deserve a president rescue.”
Why did this take off, where other hashtags have not? “This #BringBackOurGirls did not start as soon as the abductions happened,” says Saratu. “And it was very much a response to the soporific response from the government and the military and everyone you would expect some kind of reaction from.” She is keen to say that activism on the ground came ahead of the hashtag. “Much like #OccupyNigeria [after the fuel subsidy crisis in 2012], it would be unfair to say this was driven by Nigerians in diaspora, people online … I was uncomfortable that by dint of our being online we got to define the movement.”
Ogunlesi says the world is paying attention because of a combination of factors. “You’re talking about girls, kidnapped by Islamists, and that ties into the Malala story and it’s easy for people to identify with, which of course, pushed the international media,” he says. “Also, with World Economic Forum meeting in Lagos and, of course, local action. They happened together, and they all happened late.” BA
Is Nigeria’s first lady making matters worse?
Last Sunday, the president’s wife, Patience Jonathan, held a meeting at the state house in Abuja, to which she invited parents of the missing girls, the school principal and the wife of the Borno state governor, among others. “We will set up a committee to seek the truth as women,” she said. “If any of those we call refuse to come, we will take the protest to Chibok. I do not mind being shot as long as they return our girls to us safely.” In a televised clip of the meeting, Mrs Jonathan broke down in tears, repeating: “There is God, oh” as she wept.
“It was the kind of thing people were hoping for: what are first ladies for, if they cannot do this?” says Ogunlesi. “But, as the last couple of days have shown us, she has just added to the sense of confusion.” On Sunday, one of the Chibok activists in Abuja, Naomi Mutah Nyarda was arrested, allegedly at the behest of the first lady – a charge her spokesman denied. “It hasn’t done anything to change the fact – as her husband said in his media chat [press briefing] – that we don’t know where the girls are.”
On Tuesday, the APC (the All Progressives Congress, the main opposition party that runs the Borno state administration) issued a statement calling the intervention of Mrs Jonathan “distracting, counter-productive and calibrated to scapegoat others with the sole intention of exculpating her husband rather than finding the girls”.
President Goodluck Jonathan: facing mass protests in cities across Nigeria. Photograph: Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters
The politicisation of the abductions is another complication. As Ogunlesi says: “A while back, the questions were: ‘Is anybody looking for the girls?’ And then: ‘Why has it taken so long for the government to step in?’, and ‘Where are we going to find them?’ Those are the commonsense questions. But a completely new question has started to come up: ‘Was anybody actually kidnapped?’ I’ve seen elements of doubt: ‘Why are there no pictures of the girls?’ and ‘How are we sure anybody was kidnapped?’
“Borno state is an opposition state, as are all the states where Boko Haram has been most active [Adamawa and Yobe]. You can’t take the politicisation of this out of the equation. There are some quarters where it is being asked: ‘What if this is just a ploy by an APC state to embarrass us on the eve of World Economic Forum, by staging an abduction and making a noise?’ Lots of people are shocked by this, but we have to acknowledge that those questions are there.” BA
What may have happened to the girls since 14 April?
Shekau said in a video released on Monday that he planned to sell the girls as “slaves”. At least two of the girls have died from snakebites, according to two intermediaries in talks with the groups. Human rights groups have documented cases of girls who have escaped being raped and forced to cook and clean the militants’ camps. Locals have also reported sightings of large groups of girls in neighbouring Cameroon and nearby Chad. MM
What’s happening now?
The government has said it is doing all it can to get the girls back, but President Jonathan has admitted that they do not know where the girls are. Barack Obama has described the abductions as “outrageous” and the US government is sending technical experts (US military and law enforcement personnel) to aid the Nigerian government’s search. The foreign secretary, William Hague, has said the UK is offering Nigeria assistance in recovering the girls, who were being “treated as spoils of war by Boko Haram”. In the meantime, Boko Haram is reported to have taken another eight girls between the ages of eight and 15 in Waraba in Gwoza, a region that neighbours Chibok. On Tuesday morning, there were fresh reports of an alleged sustained Boko Haram attack on the border town of Gamborou Ngala.
“At this point, I honestly don’t know about the Nigerian military’s ability to contain Boko Haram,” says Saratu. “In Maiduguri, the largest city in Borno, the civilian Joint Task Force has been able to gather enough local intel and communication channels to feed directly into the military, and they’ve been able to keep Maiduguri fairly secure,” says Saratu. “But because of the military’s heavy-handed attitudes, they can’t get local intel because they’ve angered too many people. It’s going to be really difficult for them without a lot of civilian support. If the military are able to do something about these abducted girls, they might be able to buy some goodwill that may allow them to push Boko Haram further back. There is a lot riding out on the outcome, but only because it’s got so much attention.
“With our protest, we are directing our anger appropriately. If Jonathan were half the leader he should be, he would have taken that collective energy to unite the country ahead of an election,” says Saratu. “He did not do that.” BA