Boko Haram’s mass abduction of nearly 300 schoolgirls from Chibok, a small town in north-eastern Nigeria, has attracted widespread condemnation, and a significant increase in the amount of international media coverage of the group and its insurgency against the Nigerian government. The kidnappings – and subsequent announcement by Boko Haram of plans to sell or marry off the girls – has spurred outrage and the mobilisation of a significant online response in the #BringBackOurGirls campaign. Since then, a veritable army of analysts and pundits have unleashed a wave of commentary relating to the conflict: a mix of speculation, opinion sharing, and on rare occasions, insight. This glut of coverage has done much to shine a spotlight on both Boko Haram, and also on the Nigerian government itself, but frequently far less to really clarify the situation.
It is important to contextualise the kidnappings. News of the abduction emerged on 14 April 2014, the same day that a car bomb exploded in the Nyanya Motor Park in the capital, Abuja, killing over 70 people. Two weeks later another bomb exploded in a bus at the same location. In the first week of May, another group of between 12 and 15 girls were kidnapped from Warabe, another town in north-eastern Nigeria just days after the twin towns of Gamboru and Ngala, also near the Cameroonian border, were effectively destroyed by a protracted Boko Haram raid that killed over 300 villagers. Raids of this sort in particular have become Boko Haram’s calling card during 2014. The first three months of the year saw several such attacks, killing hundreds and culminating in an especially brazen, large-scale assault on a Nigerian military barracks in the city of Maiduguri in an apparent effort to free large numbers of suspected Boko Haram members held there.
The kidnappings have been neither the greatest act of brazenness by Boko Haram, nor necessarily even the most outrageous committed in the conflict. In the broader context of the insurgency (which has been going on since 2009, with increasing violence over the past year or so), a vast laundry list of atrocities have been committed and singling out this one for outrage distracts from the scope and scale of the conflict. That said, the Chibok kidnapping, and the subsequent media and online frenzy – for better or worse – has galvanised unprecedented action.
That outrage has translated into pledges of material support by China, France, Israel, the UK and the US, who have variously offered to: assist in finding the missing girls; to negotiate for their release; to support security operations in the region; and to target Boko Haram through the sharing of intelligence. Calls have emerged from some quarters for the use of drone strikes or sending in Special Forces, though such measures are unlikely at this stage and would not be of much use for rescuing the girls, who are now likely to have been split into smaller groups. Still, such dramatic calls for action underline the urgency of the demand to end the threat of Boko Haram.
Where Abubaker Shekau has revelled in the attention, President Goodluck Jonathan has appeared increasingly weak under worldwide pressure to resolve the crisis, and has been repeatedly criticised both locally and internationally for his handling of the matter. Jonathan has been ciriticised both for failing to acknowledge the kidnappings originally, and then subsequently wavering in his response. Taken together, the Abuja bombings, Chibok, and continued Boko Haram attacks in other areas have given fuel to criticisms that he is unable to act decisively where security is at stake – a criticism likely to play a key role in the upcoming 2015 elections. Later pledges to rescue the girls and offers of rewards have appeared to many as a case of ‘too little, too late’. Given the military’s record of brutal, often ineffective counterinsurgency operations against Boko Haram, such claims have inspired little confidence.
Despite having announced the dramatic defeat of Boko Haram fighters on numerous occasions, the Nigerian military appears unable to effectively protect civilians in the north-east, let alone comprehensively defeat the group. The military’s narrative of the conflict has very little credibility left. In the initial days following the Chibok kidnappings, military spokesmen claimed that many or all of the girls had been released (or, in some retellings, rescued) – a claim that was later retracted. Similar retractions have occurred previously, including claims that Boko Haram’s leader Abubaker Shekau had been killed (and later, that recent videos of him were clever fakes). Nigerian soldiers have recently begun to openly criticise their leadership, claiming that Boko Haram are better equipped, paid, trained and led: signs of increasingly severe demoralisation in the military, and evidence of its chronic mismanagement. In recent days, soldiers of the 7th Division operating in Borno state, stationed in the heart of the insurgency, have been on the edge of outright mutiny.
Moreover, it should be remembered that international aid for countering Boko Haram has been limited by the behaviour of the Nigerian government and security forces’ prosecution of counter-insurgency operations. Not only has the government previously resisted international ‘interference’, but its heavy-handed approach to security (which Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have condemned for a litany of human rights violations including mass detentions, torture, and summary executions), has made it politically difficult for the international community to offer military support, where any such offers might be considered tacit approval of those violations. The outrage felt in the wake of by Chibok and #BringBackOurGirls may have forced international support despite the military’s human rights record, but it remains to be seen what effect such intervention will have. The danger may yet be that instead of pressuring a turnaround in the Nigerian military, international support may wind up enhancing its dysfunction, and serve to discredit the government further.