As Boko Haram abducts more schoolgirls, the government’s incapacity is laid bare.
In a chilling monologue, the head of the shadowy, violent Islamist organisation named Boko Haram — which, in Hausa, roughly translates to “Western education is forbidden” — claimed responsibility for the abduction of over 200 schoolgirls from Borno in the largely Muslim north of Nigeria three weeks ago, threatening to “sell them off” because “women are slaves”. Abubakar Shekau’s horrific statement of intent should not surprise. After all, this is the same Boko Haram that, in the course of a bloody five-year insurgency, has routinely attacked students and teachers, murdering 59 boys in their school earlier this year. Its stated aim is to establish a medieval-style caliphate in north Nigeria.
Less predictable was the Nigerian government’s shameful response to this tragedy. Not only has the state failed to rescue the young women kidnapped last month, its incapacity to act has meant that suspected Boko Haram militants snatched eight more girls last week. While the Boko Haram has been conducting its campaign of terror and intimidation with near-total impunity, the police saw fit to question the activist behind the #BringBackOurGirls Twitter movement and two women who helped organise protests calling for more government action. The shambolic nature of the government’s response has touched off rare expressions of public anger, while uniting the country across the sectarian divide.
The UK and the US, among others, have now been moved to offer assistance to Nigeria. But little in the way of facts is available about the Boko Haram of today. It exploits all the institutional weaknesses that make it difficult to verify even the most basic information in Nigeria, such as the number of girls abducted. Porous borders with Chad and Cameroon mean that the girls are likely to have been separated into small groups and whisked away, making it harder to track them as time passes.