By: Emi Eleode
The name Boko Haram may be seen as a constant presence on our news feeds and in international news reportage. However, its troubling 15-year existence became an international crises since the kidnappings of 276 school girls, (known as the Chibok girls) in 2014. More than one million people, including the former First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama alongside celebrities such as Cara Delevingne, have tweeted the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. Whether the tweets have gone towards helping the crises of the kidnapped Nigerian school girls or if it was another opportunity for people to engage in first-world hashtag activism, is another matter.
The whole world watched in apprehension when news organisations first broadcasted the story that 276 girls in the northern eastern part of Nigeria had been abducted by terrorist group Boko Haram. People followed the news, gripped by the horror of the situation on their TV screens and obsessively keeping track of further developments on social media. Breaking news stories made a constant appearance on most, if not all of the news channels. This terrible event, one that was hard to imagine happening in modern society, became a global case where millions of people worldwide united and held vigils, prayers and marches in many countries such as Nigeria, the United Kingdom, France, America and Australia. Many also took to social media to express their outrage and concerns, posting hotline emergency numbers for anyone who might have information.
The global reaction to this movement began with tweets posted by a group of Nigerian citizens and government officials. The campaign offered a $300,000 reward to anyone who was able to locate or help rescue the missing girls from their captors. With the support of Barack and Michelle Obama on social media, people were inspired to fight for the cause, establishing public protests on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. Barack Obama also sent military aid to locate the girls, a total of 80 personnel to neighbouring regions such as Niger and Chad. However, all the international activity and interest has generated few positive results; as of the beginning of 2017, 195 of the 276 girls remain in captivity almost three years since their disappearance. Nonetheless, #BringBackOurGirls continues to call for the rescue of the remaining missing girls by the terrorist group.
Before the insurgency, the country had been regularly torn by attacks by Boko Haram, though many cases remained unreported in mainstream news organisations. Because of the economic situation of Nigeria– Africa’s largest economy, most populous nation and biggest oil producer– money laundering and corruption has made it difficult to develop the country’s infrastructure, a factor which the insurgents have exploited.
Boko Haram stated aim is to abolish Western influence and overthrow the Nigerian government by replacing it with a regime based on Islamic law and sharia criminal courts across Nigeria. Its name translates to ‘Western education is forbidden’, with the word boko originating from the English word for book. The group has existed since the 1990s but did not become an official group until 2002 in Maiduguri, the capital of the north-eastern state of Borno. Its formation was lead by Islamic sect leader and founder of the terrorist group, Mohammed Yusuf, a preacher with fundamentalist and rigid interpretations of the Quran. Yusuf was trained in a school of thought often identified with jihad. He believed that the establishment of British colonial rule in Nigeria had created a Western way of life for Muslims. Some might argue that during his leadership, he had moderate views in the way the group should operate compared to his rival Abubakar Shekau. There have been debates whether Yusuf had a direct involvement of the violence which broke out in 2003 and early 2004, however, he denied his participation by claiming that the young people who carried out the attacks, followed his teachings of the Quran.
In 2009, Mohammed Yusuf was involved of what is known as the 2009 Boko Haram Rising, which resulted in his death. The conflict was between the terrorist group and the military factions of the Nigerian government. The assault caused the death of 1000 civilians, 700 of them being from the the area of Maiduguri. An inquiry later discovered that the foundation to the conflict was caused by an outbreak of unrest between some members of Boko Haram and police forces of the city of Maiduguri. Taking charge of the terrorist operation in 2010, Abubakar Shekau threatened attacks on Western influences in Nigeria before supporting al-Qaeda’s operation and threatening further attacks, this time to the United States.
Under Shekau’s rule, Boko Haram has grown in size with mass followers. The group had shown their operational capabilities with the usage of highly functional explosive devices and vehicle based weapons, the rise of female and child suicide bombers, and since 2014, an increase of near-daily attacks in Christian dominated surroundings, schools, media centres, police and government buildings, attacks against other muslims and many other public spaces which are deemed as siding with the teachings of the West. Shekau’s escalation of violent attacks in the country has left many devastations, causing international outrage.
Boko Haram’s bloody legacy has claimed the lives of millions of people and left thousands without a home to return to or access to healthcare and education. Aid workers from the Borno region of Nigeria have reported that thousands of civilians continue to live in fear of the terrorist group, many of them refusing to return to their hometowns. The Nigerian government has claimed that the attacks have subsided but there are further reports of civil unrest and attacks in the neighbouring towns and villages. Many Nigerians have fled from Boko Haram’s insurgency but the constant threat that the group poses is causing emotional trauma from the continued struggle of living in an environment where danger is rampant. More than two million people, many of them children and victims of sexual violence, have been displaced from their homes since 2009.
As many as 80 per cent of the displaced come from the Borno region, the hotbed for many of the terrorist group’s attacks. Civilians have taken refuge in Maiduguri, the largest city of the Borno State in Northeastern Nigeria, or living with family members, friends or renting overcrowded accommodations– often living in squalid conditions with limited access to clean water or basic sanitary needs. There has been a major outbreak of cholera in September 2015 which killed over 20 civilians while 1500 have people been sickened with the disease. This disease including many others have been a constant threat to the people living in overcrowded accommodations and camps due to as many as 100 latrines being used by the thousands who inhabit the area. The remaining people have fled to other neighbouring countries including Niger, Chad and Cameroon, places where reports of Boko Haram’s operation have been sighted. A lack of housing facilities has been a major dilemma in other parts of Nigeria due to the growing population and from the immigration of people who have escaped the group’s terrorists activities.
The arrival of the thousands who have been displaced by the insurgency of Boko Haram has been interrupted in fear of the continued threat posed by the terrorist group; in turn causing a reluctance to return to their hometowns. Many of the the country’s north-east region has been destroyed. Fear– a huge factor of the crises, drove civilians out but upon returning to their hometowns, they find their households destroyed beyond repair.
Another growing problem are the victims of sexual assault from the survivors of Boko Haram’s regime. As a large number of the country’s population practice the Christian religion while the remaining (mainly those from the north) follow the teachings of Islam, aid workers have uncovered that the more conservative believers did not want to associate themselves with victims of rape in fear that aligning themselves with ‘unclean’ or pregnant ‘unmarried’ women goes against their beliefs and would further perpetuate a retaliation from the group. These girls become outcasts in their own towns and villages with nowhere to turn to.
The reality of the situation is a far cry from the imagined outcome a few years back when 267 girls known as the Chibok girls were kidnapped from their homes causing an international reaction with the social media campaign #Bringbackourgirls. While many of the school girls are still missing, people presumed that those who managed to escape would receive a warm welcome back and help to adjust from their traumatic experience. However, the truth is far different. They have been subjected to public scorn and verbally abused on the streets, people often calling them ‘Boko Haram’s wives’ and that people should not thrust them. Nigerian authorities said that the ignorance also comes from the fact that many of the recent bombings carried out were done by women, many of them implemented by girls under the age of 18. Few of them being the girls who have been kidnapped and forced into marriage and sexual slavery, girls who have then converted into assassins.
There is no telling of the thought process of the girls who decided to become killers, however what we do know is that they have all been subjected to violence beyond measure of understanding.
Since the beginning of the conflict between the Nigerian military and Boko Haram, many people have been left on the brink of starvation, prompting a surge of foreign aid.
The humanitarian crises has seen people, many of them children, at the risk of famine from the northeastern region of Borno. Reports from the United Nations have stated that hundreds of civilians have already died from starvation and that thousands could die over the next few months. Military forces have managed to push back against the threat of Boko Haram attacks in some areas to allow relief aid trucks to pass without further casualties. The start of the dry season is also causing concern to aid workers who have said that the terrorist group is focusing on refugee camps to carry out their assaults.
The implication of the group’s operation has affected Nigeria’s economy. It may be of a local scale for the time being but economists fear that agricultural products of the north has decreased cross-border trade with neighbouring countries Chad, Cameroon and Niger. The northern regions of the country bear most of the burden of poverty with lack of development and infrastructure compared to their southern and western counterparts. Nigerian government policies fail to discuss the need for more job opportunities or improving education and the socio-economical situation of the state. With lack of investments to aid the north, Boko Haram has seen it as an opportunity to operate and spread their bloodshed. The terrorist group exploits the deficiency of infrastructure, development and poverty of the north, using it to highlight the government’s inability to solve the crises. They use it as a way to present themselves as an alternative power for the northern population. Boko Haram sees that they have a legitimate claim to govern an Islamic state in the northern regions as the government factions of the north is failing to curb poverty of the mostly Muslim population which is impoverished and volatile due to the continued clashes between tribes. Poverty creates a space where terrorism can spread and influence the population.
Terrorist groups like Boko Haram will continue to exist and exert their rule so long as government policies do not address the underlying issues of of infrastructure and poverty. It is easier for terrorist organisations to operate in places that are above the poverty line and have a better standard of living. Communities with a lower poverty rate, have the means to provide a system in place essential to manage political and socio-economic stability. Another factor to consider is the complicated dynamic of tribes, religion and hierarchy which have contributed to the instability of the country. They bring everything down to a black and white way of dealing with situations; North vs South or Islam vs Christianity, leaving no room for compromise. The government has often exploited these issues to further their agenda and cause further divisions between varying localities.
Terrorist group Boko Haram has plagued Nigeria over the past fifteen years, claiming the lives of thousands and causing displacement. The armed group has increased its violence by controlling large areas of the country and by 2015, they have captured and resided over many towns and cities of the north. There have since then been worrying reports of sightings of the terrorist group’s activities to countries outside of Nigeria such as Chad, Niger and Cameroon. They are looking for ways to extend their influence and further radicalisation by attacking these neighbouring countries and killing innocent civilians. It was announced in February of 2015 that the governmental bodies of the four nations would form a military alliance to help defeat the insurgents, Chad leading the assault since they are known to be the most feared military force in Africa. Like most things, this military formation has led to retaliation from the opposition. Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau made a public statement by releasing a video in support of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), also known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or IS (Islamic State). He overhauled the group’s agenda by rebranding it as the Islamic State’s West Africa Province as a way to confront the oppositions power. Shekau’s video also had a personal message to Chad’s president Idriss Deby, claiming that they are ready for any attacks that will be made against them.
Nigeria is on the verge of change. The current president Muhammadu Buhari is tackling corruption– known as Buhari’s anti-corruption war. During his election campaign, he declared that one of the things he will accomplish is to fight corruption. Some of the recent cases have seen politicians and people in power arrested for extortion. They had the option to transfer all the laundered funds back to the economy or risk being imprisoned if they did not adhere to the rules. This is a big step to ensure that the threat posed by Boko Haram will begin to have less of an impact in the country. It will also help to restore Nigeria’s lapsing economy and infrastructure.
Images: EU/ECHO/Isabel Coello and Michael Fleshman via Flickr CC