The impressive “Bring Our Girls Home” social media campaign has succeeded in drawing attention to the audacious and cruel abduction of 276 schoolgirls by the Nigerian Islamist sect Boko Haram.
The actions of the nihilistic group, who view the girls’ lives as more-or-less expendable (no more than their value in ransom), have rightly been condemned. But we need to discuss the political conditions in which such an organisation takes root.
Some on the socialist left have been more concerned to expose the (undoubted) hypocrisy of the west’s offers of help to find the girls (e.g. Green Left Weekly).
But the less publicised protest of the “Women Arise Against Terror” coalition (which includes the Nigerian Labour Congress) in Lagos on Monday 13 May chose to focus on the responsibility of Nigeria’s government for the crisis.
Other critical voices inside Nigeria have pointed out how the government failed to act before international attention forced it and how they have failed to tackle the sect over the last five years of murderous activities.
Nigeria’s government has more than enough resources to crush Boko Haram. It does not need Western intervention! As one commentator caustically asked, why can’t the Nigerian army deal with a “ragtag fundamentalist Islamic group who trained neither at Sandhurst nor at any of the elite military schools around the world where Nigeria’s military men and women are regulars?”
The answer is the government does not care. As Nigerian socialist Kola Ibrahim points out, for the Nigerian government, when the kidnapping took place in April, the matter was “business as usual”:
“Even at the peak of the outcry by the parents to the government, the Jonathan government did not issue a single statement, at least to console the parents. On the contrary, it exploited the issue for its political interests. For instance, while the government did not sanction senior security chiefs who misled the nation by claiming that most of the schoolgirls have been rescued, many protesters, especially in the north were illegally arrested.
“Tragi-comically, the president’s wife, Patience Jonathan… was quick to issue an ‘ order’ for the immediate release of the schoolgirls. She even arranged a tear-shedding session with journalists. Interestingly, the following day, two of the selfless and concerned parents leading the campaign for the release of the girls were clamped into detention, because they ‘ embarrassed’ the government of the madam’s husband.
“The President, at a media chat, was busy asking journalists to help him find the missing girls, because they (the journalists) know more about security and defence of the country than the Commander-in-Chief does! The same president that budgeted close to a trillion naira for defence last year was asking journalists to guide him on national security! Prior to this time, the President, in a show of pure callousness, attended a political rally in Kano, dancing, while in the nation’s capital city, Abuja, more than seventy lives were burning to ashes in a terrorist bomb blast.”
If there is hypocrisy in these terrible events, most of it is that of the Nigerian government of Goodluck Jonathan. They are responsible for so many human rights abuses — of women and, most recently LGBT people (same-sex marriage prohibition laws have just been passed).
Boko Haram has its origins in the revival of salafist (fundamentalist) Islam in northern Nigeria in the late 1990s. Properly established in 2002, it came out of an Islamist youth movement based in Maiduguri, the capital of the northern state of Borno. The youth group, Shababul Islam (Islamic Youth Vanguard), was originally led by Mohammed Yusuf. Yusuf’s goal was the introduction of sharia in northern Nigeria.
When mainstream Islamist politicians failed to implement sharia to their satisfaction, Boko Haram became more extreme. A split-off tried to set up an isolated community, but violent clashes with local people and police disrupted that project. Increasingly the group became an armed band of criminal outlaws.
Undoubtedly poverty fuels the growth of Boko Haram and other Islamist and jihadist fragments (Boko Haram itself has a number of factions). In this oil rich country 61% of Nigerians live in absolute poverty on less than $1 a day. But the sect does not win recruits from the generality of the poor population in the north (one of the poorest areas in Nigeria). It recruits many of its members from the vast numbers of destitute children who are sent to Quranic schools. And Boko Haram’s ideology is not about protesting against poverty. They exist to campaign for release of prisoners (as it has done with this recent abduction), trying to get compensation, targeting police, Christians, critical Muslim clerics, traditional leaders, UN offices, bars, and secular schools.
For much of the last decade the movement has had connections and/or a client relationship with local politicians and that, as much as anything, encouraged its growth.
In 2009 Boko Haram violence escalated and the government set about suppressing it. 800 people, not all supporters, were killed. Mohammed Yusuf was killed in police custody. Since 2009, for the last five years, Boko Haram has been underground, its activities increasingly violent and more akin to criminal gang-type thuggery.
In the last year the Nigerian government has adopted a policy which has inconsistently swung between repression and negotiation. They have also financed civilian vigilantes, and these have been involved ex-judicial killing of suspects. Boko Haram attacks have increased during the first three months of 2014 and according to Amnesty at least 1,500 people have been killed.
The “Bring Our Girls Home” campaign is very limited politically, but it has drawn attention to how Nigerians (many of them Muslim) are suffering at the hands of this vicious group. The attention is a good thing. Our job is to make solidarity with the many Nigerians who are fighting for the fundamental social and political change that will be needed to drive out Boko Haram.
We will try to give coverage in the forthcoming issues of Solidarity to the views and struggles of those activists.