More than 200 girls were kidnapped in Nigeria last month and aside from a few escapees and rumors of forced marriage, there’s been no sign of them since. There was little reporting on the abductions in their immediate aftermath, leaving many to wonder, why aren’t we talking about these girls? Would we be so silent if they were white?
Thanks to unrelenting pressure from Nigerian activists, journalists, and angry citizens, the story caught on. Nigerian citizens marched in the streets while #BringBackOurGirls trended on Twitter. Tomorrow, rally-goers in Washington, D.C., will demand action. Homemade signs reading “Missing Person(s): Over 200 Nigerian Girls” speckle the New York City subway. Politicians including Nancy Pelosi and Kirsten Gillibrand tweeted their outrage. The missing schoolgirls still haven’t merited as much media attention as the missing Malaysia Airlines jet, but at least they’re in the news.
While the international collective anger is a powerful tool that could push the Nigerian military and leadership to look harder, aside from demands to bring the girls home, what can be done?
Boko Haram, the militant Muslim group behind the kidnappings, has been terrorizing Nigeria since 2009. The organization’s name means “Western education is a sin,” and the group claims credit for attacks on schools, hospitals, churches, military checkpoints, transportation hubs, and a UN building. The group promotes Muslim rule and the authority of Sharia law, but it’s not as simple as Muslim religious extremists vs. Christians (Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, is a Christian). Religious extremists make up Boko Haram, but the group is far from unified, with different arms expressing a variety of desires, motivations, and strategies for achieving their goals.
Kidnappings like this latest one reinforce Boko Haram’s anti-education message, but they also make money for the group through ransoms and the sale of kidnapped women and girls; abductions also raise Boko Haram’s international profile. And as much as Boko Haram claims to want a pure religious state apart from Western intervention or interaction, the militants are happy to make use of Western technology and media platforms, including posting videos on YouTube calling for the death of teachers and bragging about their attacks. Power and attention, it seems, are at least as intoxicating as moral righteousness.
Unfortunately, Boko Haram’s more abhorrent acts have gone ignored on the international scene until now. Boko Haram has killed 1,500 people so far this year alone, racking up a body count of more than 5,000 since its founding. In February, the group targeted a different school. They sent the girls home, telling them to stop studying and find husbands.
The boys were unceremoniously slaughtered.
Nigeria’s government remains ineffective in combating Boko Haram. That’s partly because the nature of disjointed terrorist groups makes them difficult to combat — there are no front lines in a war on terror, no uniforms, and no individual battles after which one side can claim victory. But it’s also because of Nigeria’s endemic political corruption. Governance hums along through bribes exchanging hands, and public funds seem to keep winding up in politicians’ pockets. While the country has a large military budget, little of that trickles down to paying the actual soldiers on the ground.
Even so: How can more than 200 girls disappear without a trace, and stay missing for two weeks? How can the Nigerian government remain unsure as to the actual number of girls missing?
It’s a complicated problem centered in a place half a world away from the United States, and all many of us have to offer is our outrage, or maybe a Change.org petition demanding that Jonathan bring the girls home — a sympathetic position, but not one that’s really saying anything Jonathan hasn’t heard before.
If we want to help #BringBackOurGirls, maintaining pressure on the Nigerian government to get its act together is a good (and easy) first step. After all, Jonathan didn’t even hold a meeting about how to rescue the girls until more than a week after their abduction, after foreign pressure intensified. But American leaders can help, too. The United States gives the Nigerian military $1 million in aid every year; we could offer emergency support primarily in the form of technology, and especially military surveillance tools, to make sure that all available methods are being used in the search for the missing students. We could institute stricter transparency mechanisms to make sure that the dollars we send to Nigeria are being spent on public services. We could step up the military training programs recently instituted in the north of Nigeria, where Boko Haram is most active, to assist the Nigerian army in combating an illusive and dangerous force. And we could pressure the Nigerian government to make sure its military is appropriately focused on intelligence-gathering — according to reports, information from local residents is being discarded.
Social media attention is having a real impact here. But we can do more than just tweet into the ether and sign petitions with loose demands. If we really want to #BringOurGirlsBack, the Nigerian government must be held accountable, and our own government must extend a hand.
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