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The kidnapping of girls in Chibok by Boko Haram has increased the international spotlight on Nigeria. The dilemma for the international community at this point is to understand this complicated environment, but also to make sure the interest is not simply transitory.
By Raffaello Pantucci and Matthew Cadoux-Hudson
The world’s attention has been caught by the plight of the Nigerian schoolgirls brutally snatched from their schools in Chibok a month ago by Islamist fighters in northern Nigeria. In the sudden surge of attention, Boko Haram has been treated as though it is coherent with clear goals and aspirations. The reality is that the group is a largely nebulous entity that has been waging a brutal insurgency in northern Nigeria for almost five years with little international attention. The question is whether this burst of attention will be sustained beyond the current crisis.
It is important to understand the group a little better. The group does not, in fact, refer to itself as Boko Haram but rather (in the material that it releases) as ‘The Congregation of the People of the Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad’ (Jamâ’at Ahl al-Sunnah li Da’wahwa-l-Jihâd). But focusing on this detail misses the fact that one of the underlying drivers of the group’s narrative is a historical one that draws on a long tradition of tensions between north and south Nigeria, and the perception of more Christian (and therefore Western) education being brought into the Muslim north. Boko Haram in many ways claims to be the heirs of past expressions of a regional ethnic and religious identity that previously bubbled up in the form of Usman dan Fodio’s Sokoto Caliphate from the early 1800s or more recently the Maitatsine riots that came to a head in 1980.
In that latter case, in much the same way as Mohammed Yusuf emerged in the northeastern provinces and established a utopian Muslim community in the early 2000s that clashed with the Nigerian state, Mohammed Marwan, or Maitatsine, was a Muslim preacher who established a community of followers around Kano and then began railing against endemic corruption within the Nigerian state. In both cases, the Nigerian government clamped down hard, leading to violent rioting, and in the more recent case, the brutal insurgency that continues to plague Nigeria and has now kidnapped the Chibok girls.
The current size of the group is not clear, though it has shown itself repeatedly capable of withstanding substantial losses whilst still launching large-scale attacks highlighting an ability to replenish their ranks. The structure of the group is also not entirely clear. Abubakar Shekau, who has become a household name in the wake of the current crisis, is clearly the leader of the organisation. There are a number of prominent individuals who operate under him, but the degree to which he controls or directs them all is not clear.
The number of girls kidnapped in this particular instance is something new for the group. But kidnapping and targeting females is not. The group has been kidnapping individuals, both young boys and girls, for over a year. Shekau spoke of the initial kidnappings being undertaken in retaliation for the imprisonment of the groups’ wives and children. In some cases it seems as though the group has targeted women in particular to act as cooks and support in their camps.
The group’s brutal notoriety did not traditionally focus on its penchant for kidnapping girls, but for butchering entire schools of male children. On 6 July 2013, the group launched an attack on a local secondary school in Mamudo killing forty-two students and staff. On 29 September 2013 in Gujba they launched an attack on the College of Agriculture killing fifty students. On 26 February 2014 in Buni Yadi the group attacked a remote boarding school killing at least twenty-nine students. And there have been numerous other similar incidents. In every case the local security response was parlous. While the first of these incidents attracted some attention, more recent ones have blended into the background of violence in northeastern Nigeria.
Taken against this backdrop, it is not entirely clear that the group would have therefore been expecting the response it got to this particular kidnapping. On the same day as the kidnapping took place, a bomb went off in a city on the outskirts of Abuja, killing at least seventy-five people. Shekau released a video almost the next day claiming the explosion. It was followed by another explosion a couple of weeks later. In contrast, the videos relating to the girls did not emerge for some weeks until the international media spotlight was brought to bear, suggesting the group was not necessarily expecting such attention.
Exploiting the Attention
However, now that it has the world’s attention, it is going to try to get as much as it can. The group has form in resolving kidnappings with exchanges of money, and has in the past bargained with the Nigerian government to have the imprisoned wives and children of group members released for kidnapped women and children. While on the one hand it is unlikely that the group controls or has all of the girls (reports indicate some may have already died, while others are likely to have been sold off), now it has initiated a process it seems likely at least some will be released through negotiation.
The bigger issue is what happens after that. The world has largely sat by while Boko Haram and its many off-shoots and franchises have wreaked havoc. This has left the Nigerian government responding to the threat in a manner which is not getting rid of the group beyond containing it in the northeastern provinces.
Even this does not seem to be working with two bombings near Abuja in the past month. France has now taken the lead in agreeing to host a regional summit on Boko Haram in Paris on 17 May, bringing together leaders from Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Benin as well as senior figures from the UK, US and EU. The hope has to be that this is the beginning of a more concerted effort to deal with a group that has been steadily growing in violence since the early 2000s.