Nigeria is still failing the Chibok girls
Last weekend marked five years since the abduction of 276 schoolgirls from the sleepy town of Chibok in the north-east Nigerian state of Borno, and still 112 girls are missing.
The schoolgirls’ kidnap on 14 April 2014 was one of many episodes in a timeline of abductions since Boko Haram began its campaign of havoc in Borno, but this one shook the world.
The #BringBackOurGirls movement marked the memory by staging 112 desks at an Abuja park, to symbolise the remaining girls still in custody of Boko Haram.
However, the energy of most of those who helped make the #BringBackOurGirls campaign trend worldwide has since dissipated, with the world’s attention having moved on to other things. One of the conveners back in Nigeria, Hadiza Bala Usman, has also joined the government, resigning her membership of the movement.
Boko Haram’s strategy
Since the insurgency began 10 years ago, triggered by the death of the radical cleric Mohammed Yusuf in police custody, it has spread to other parts of the Sahel. Boko Haram and its many factions have captured thousands of people, some as collateral damage in its raids on civilian and military areas.
According to UNICEF, more than a thousand children have been abducted since 2013; there is no word on how many have been killed. The UN agency adds that “at least 2,295 teachers have been killed and more than 1,400 schools have been destroyed” in that period.
Boko Haram’s focus on schools and centres of learning ties in with its aims: beyond wanting to establish its own caliphate, the group forbids non-Arabic education. Its full name, Jamā’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’wah wa’l-Jihād, means “Western education is sinful” in Hausa.
- In July 2013, gunmen presumed to be part of Boko Haram attacked a boarding school in Mamudo, Yobe state. Forty-two people died, most of them schoolboys.
- Less than a year later, in February 2014, the group slaughtered 59 boys at another boarding school in Buni Yadi, burning them to ashes.
- Two months later, the Chibok kidnapping occured; while some escaped and others were released in an exchange, over 100 girls are still in captivity or have died.
- After years of being relatively untouched, the University of Maiduguri was attacked in 2017 and 2018; some lecturers who had been taken hostage were also released in 2018.
- In February 2018, the Islamic State West Africa – one of Boko Haram’s factions – orchestrated the kidnap of 113 schoolgirls in another Borno town, Dapchi. Five died and one, Leah Sharibu, remains in custody.
- In November 2018, about 15 girls were taken in raids around southeastern Niger. Their whereabouts remain unknown.
Beyond the schoolchildren, a few military personnel and hundreds of unknown civilians have been seized, while the army continues to either deny and downplay the news. Some are foreign and local aid workers; most are women and men unaccounted for on an official basis, as Nigeria has no verified national database for its citizens and no official population figures since its controversial 2006 census.
The kidnapping has continued partly because the payment of ransoms or swaps with prisoners deregulated the kidnap-for-hire market. Together with porous borders and the relative ease of access to small arms, this has opened the floodgates.
In a region with historically lower literacy rates than the rest of the country, the abductions could further reduce school enrolment rates for children, especially girls.
- “If I was a parent in Nigeria, I’d be so scared to send my child to school,” Chatham House’s Sola Tayo told Reuters. “This shows the state cannot guarantee that children in school are safe.”
The government’s record
The attitude of government, at all tiers and across successive administrations, shows a disregard for the fate of the abductees still at large and the populations living in fear.
- As president, Goodluck Jonathan did nothing for two weeks after the Chibok abductions and still refuses to take responsibility for the tragedy.
- Borno State governor Ibrahim Shettima was advised to relocate the pupils to the state capital prior to the attack but refused, and did not put adequate security measures in place.
- President Muhammadu Buhari, Jonathan’s successor, campaigned heavily on insecurity, but since election has also appeared either just as helpless or unwilling to pull out all the stops. Despite paying ransom to release most of the Dapchi girls and some of the Chibok girls, government communication on those still in captivity has gone cold. No senior government official was at the anniversary event for the Chibok girls at the weekend.
- The president has since disengaged the services of South African mercenaries hired by Jonathan, despite their momentum in curtailing Boko Haram.
About $1bn has been approved for release from the excess crude account to acquire new and updated equipment for the military but the army says it is yet to access the funds.
Meanwhile, the government has setup a North East Development Commission that promises to rebuild the region; residents are not holding their breath. The government has been persuading thousands of displaced people to return to their hometowns, but those who have done so have found these towns and villages still in a state of ruin and without security.