On Monday Nigeria received the first news in weeks of 200 girls who had been kidnapped from their school in the north of the country. Boko Haram, the Islamist organisation that has terrorised the country in recent months, released a statement saying that they would “sell them in the market” because they should “get married”. The news sent a shock around the world, and brought attention to the plight of people in Nigeria’s north. So who are Boko Haram? How has the government responded? And why can such a group get any support in Africa’s biggest nation?
The attack took place last month on the 14th of April, in remote Borno state. Boko Haram arrived in trucks at a girls school, where hundreds of schoolgirls aged 15-18 lived in dormitories. The militants proceeded to round up as many of them as they could, before burning down the school. The girls were then driven off into the bush, and nothing has been heard from them since.
Boko Haram’s statement on Monday confirmed the worst fears of the families of the girls. The leader of the Taliban-like extremists declared that the schoolgirls had been taken as slaves, and that they would be sold on the market. “God instructed me to sell them, they are his properties and I will carry out his instructions”. According to him, the girls should be getting married as soon as they can have children, instead of getting an education.
So who is this group? Boko Haram is an Islamist movement that has been carrying on a low-level insurgency since 2009 that flared up violently in 2013-14. They stand for an incredibly extreme and medieval version of Islam, have little interaction with other local Muslims, and reject all contact with the West. In a bizarre interview one of their previous leaders told the BBC that evolution was a lie and that the earth was flat. Whether he actually believed this was another question. However, it is certain that they especially despise Western-style education. Boko Haram can even be interpreted as “Western-education is forbidden”. As a result their worst attacks have been on schools. In numerous night attacks they have entered dormitories to murder dozens of students in their beds, as well as carrying out suicide bomb attacks throughout their powerbase in the Muslim north of Nigeria.
Their extreme violence has left the government struggling to cope, and northerners have felt ignored and left behind by President Goodluck Jonathan. In the weeks after the event he barely mentioned the kidnapping, with one advisor merely calling it “unfortunate, embarrassing and evil”. The word order is telling. The kidnapping has once again exposed the lack of funding devastating the Nigerian army and police. Soldiers on the frontline complain that the militants are better armed than they are, and police are regularly seen on the streets begging for handouts. Faced with this lack of resources, the President has been embarrassingly eclipsed by his wife, whose efforts to involve herself in the search for the girls has gained the media spotlight, as well as infuriating many other politicians. The main opposition party accused her of putting on a “distracting, absurd and overbearing show”.
Unfortunately for the families of the girls – and Goodluck Jonathan – there is no quick fix for the situation. The schoolgirls have most likely been taken to remote parts of the country, near the border with Cameroon. Even with international assistance arriving, the chances of getting them back without a deal being made are slim. The deeper rooted causes of Boko Haram’s support are even harder to combat. The fact that such an extreme organisation has even a small amount of support shows badly the Muslim north is marginalised. The lack of government support for education and health has alienated many, and it may be a long time before Boko Haram’s shocking ideology fails to attract any more followers.