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Mainstream, VOL. 52, No. 21, May 17, 2014

Nigeria: Justice for the Nightly Raiders

Monday 19 May 2014, by Mohan K. Tikku

“If Boko Haram succeeds in its stated agenda to make the country ungovernable, if Boko Haram succeeds in goading those areas that have victim citizens in the northern part of the country into reprisal actions on the nearest targets, not only will this cause a break-up, it will be very messy. That is the reason some of us have been issuing appeals to community leaders to make sure it doesn’t happen in their communities.”
—Wole Soyinka

Despite such wise counsel coming from one of the most perceptive minds in Africa, things have been on the slide in Nigeria. The recent abduction of about two hundred girls by the Islamist group that styles itself as Boko Haram has captured the headlines worldwide. But the trouble has been simmering under the surface for far too long to have remained unnoticed to whoever cared to see.

Relations between Christian and Muslim communities in Nigeria have in the past been marked by periodic tensions which at times have spilt over into violence. But even during the worst of times, these have never been as violent and unmanageable as at the present juncture. Boko Haram has abducted 200 school girls since mid-April. In its first nighty attack on a girls’ boarding school, gunmen rounded up 120 school girls, bundled them into vehicles, only to disappear into the darkness. These girls, and several others who were abducted a few days later, have remained untraced despite appeals by the international comm-unity that the innocents be set free immedia-tely.

The international opinion has responded to these developments with a deep sense of outrage. There have been public demonstrations deman-ding the release of the girls. In an unprecedented response on the social media, over a billion tweets have highlighted the plight of the young innocents. Many women, including those from Islamic countries, have strongly urged that the girls be set free. Apparently unimpressed by what the world thinks of Boko Haram’s dastardly action, Abubakar Shekan, leader of the extremist group, has threatened to forcibly convert the girls to Islam or else sell them into the flesh trade. This would be an absolute outrage and must at all costs be prevented from coming to pass.

Launched in 2002 as a Muslim fundamentalist group, Boko Haram has been particularly active 2009 onwards. Since the beginning of this year, it has killed 1500 people, a sizable number of them Christians. Earlier in May, the group was responsible for a nightly raid on the north-eastern town of Gamboru, bordering Cameroon, killing 300 people, including women and children. Clearly, this cannot be allowed to go on. Apart from being anti-Western, Boko Haram has been a mix of multiple strands. In the local Huasa language, Boko Haram means ‘Western education is forbidden’. That explains why the group feels so mad about girls going to school. But that is not what this extremist groups is all about. It has engaged in all manner of violent acts that defy rationality.

Last year, the United States designated Boko Haram as a terrorist group. In the course of the past few weeks, several governments, besides the United States, have offered help in tracing the girls and restoring them to their families. Some assistance had already started arriving in the country. Any operation undertaken in this situation has to combine caution with decisive action. One major consideration is that the girls must be brought back safely and without harm. The second is that in case of collateral
damage caused in the course of an operation, it should be kept to the very minimum. Besides, for the international assistance to be successful, it is necessary that the Nigerian Government remains actively engaged in dealing with the crisis situation than it has been in the past.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s government has come in for some criticism for being too slow in responding to the crisis. As he admitted later, he had initially been living under the impression that the reports of the girls’ abduction were an exaggeration and floated by his opponents to bring a bad name to his government. That was until reality struck home. In fact, President Jonathan, who was at the World Economic Forum in the first week of May, was seemingly earnestly urging foreign inve-stors to invest in Nigeria while the crisis was brewing back home. It should have been clear to him that with the likes of Boko Haram around, few foreign investors would venture to invest in Nigeria. So, it was time he started with first things first.

Apparently feeling encouraged by the inter-national support for action against the Islamic terrorist group, President Goodluck Jonathan later expressed the hope that the abduction episode perpetrated by Boko Haram “will be the beginning of the end of terror in Nigeria”. But the abduction story represents no more than the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Here, we have a situation where Africa’s richest oil resources country is living with acute poverty and deprivation of large sections of the population, low social development, high crime rates along with religious extremism. Boko Haram itself is typical of the situation and looks something of a witches’ brew. It is not just anti-Western, as its name suggests, but a melange of diverse currents and concoctions. As Wole Soyinka has remarked, many Muslims too have been among the killed, making one wonder about the nature of its lumpen character.

Indeed, the European and US governments have been quick to express concern. They have even offered help to trace the girls. But the problem is far larger than that. Besides, the Western interventions—remember, Iraq, Afgha-nistan, and now Syria and may be Ukraine very soon—have had a habit of producing a bigger mess than would be there to begin with. Unless the Nigerian Government gets its act together, mere Western assistance in men or materials cannot take it very far. But to achieve that the President would need to demonstrate a great deal of resolve for concerted action against the religious extremist and sundry other elements. It is clear this madness must be ended, and Boko Haram’s lunatic leaders brought to justice. President Goodluck Jonathan would need more than good luck for that to happen.

The author is a senior journalist and writer who has specialised in developments in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. He also writes on foreign affairs in general.