Thursday, May 1, 2014

When an Education is a Death Sentence: Over 200 Girls Kidnapped from School in Nigeria

A girl looks out from her bombed school.
Courtesy Getty Images.
For two weeks now, the residents of Chibok in northern Nigeria have been living every parent’s worst nightmare. On April 14, over 200 girls were kidnapped from a boarding school in Chibok, likely by the militants of Boko Haram, an extremist Islamist group that has been terrorizing Nigeria since 2009. While schools including that of the girls were closed recently due to militant attacks, the students had returned to sit for their final exams. Around midnight on April 14, militants stormed the student dorm and carried away the approximately 234 female students on motorbikes and trucks. They are now reportedly held in nearby Sambisa Forest, a 60 square kilometer area that has become a stronghold of Boko Haram.

Since the attack, about 40-50 students have escaped their captors and returned home. The principal of their school estimates that 220 are still missing, while others place the number at 180. The difficulty in ascertaining numbers is due to the slow government response and lack of coordination of the rescue efforts. In the two weeks since the attacks, the community has grown outraged with the inept government response. At first military spokesmen claimed only 150 had been kidnapped and that most of the girls had escaped, and only recently launched a ground offensive to try to rescue the girls. Yet the forest terrain melts into dessert, and the guerillas are apparently being tipped off by leaks in the military and government, allowing them to stay one step ahead of the would-be rescuers, even ambushing and killing 15 soldiers sent to search for the girls. Nigerian Pres. Goodluck Jonathan has yet to make a statement, despite the crisis dragging on for over two weeks, further enflaming local anger.

Nigeria’s battle with Boko Haram, whose Hausa name is usually translated as “Western education is forbidden,” has claimed 4,000 lives on both sides since fighting escalated in 2009. Over 90,000 people have been displaced by the conflict, which is occurring in Nigeria’s poorest northern regions. In May 2013, Pres. Jonathan declared a state of emergency in Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa states, which has only served to increase attacks on civilians. On the same day as the kidnappings occurred, a bus bombing during rush hour in Abuja in central Nigeria killed 75. The Nigerian government itself is not innocent of violence, and families do not know if the hundreds of men and boys arrested and disappeared by the security forces for alleged “terrorist” activities are still alive.

Nigerian provinces where Boko Haram attacks have occurred.
This is also not Boko Haram’s first attack on education or women and girls, simply its largest mass kidnapping to date. Attacks target schools, churches and other Christian sites, police stations, and government targets. The group aims to establish a pure, Islamist state in Nigeria free from Western influences, and shuns democracy and anything seen as a product of “Westernization” such as modern education. In July 2013, 29 students were burned alive when Boko Haram attacked a school in northern Nigeria. In September that same year, 59 boys were killed in another raid on a school. Kidnapping females and forcing them into marriages also has been a common tactic, although previous kidnappings occurred in fields and village outskirts, streets of busy areas, and on public transportation. In 2013, 26 women and girls were rescued who had been abducted and held in Maiduguri and Sambisa forest, many pregnant or with newborns from forced marriages to militants.

Because of the sluggish and ineffective government response to the Chibok kidnappings, local residents have pooled their money and begun their own search efforts through the Sambisa forest. What they found horrified them: locals reported that Boko Haram sold their daughters to insurgents for $12 USD in forced marriages. Samson Dawah, a retired teacher who lost his niece, said, "We have heard from members of the forest community where they took the girls. They said there had been mass marriages and the girls are being shared out as wives among the Boko Haram militants."

The community outrage has prompted a “Million Woman March” yesterday and today, using the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls to raise awareness online. One woman questioned, "For how long are we going to wait for the government to help us? We can't bear it anymore ... We just want the government to help us, we want the world to hear this and help us." At this point, the government’s actions have revealed a desire to appear to be winning against Boko Haram, even though the group continues to launch attacks such as this one. The initial reports low-balled the number of missing students and insisted most had escaped, yet at least 180 are still missing.

Women march in Abuja. Courtesy BBC News.
While Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy and is set to host the World Economic Forum next week, in the north 72 percent of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day while only 27 percent in the south of the country and 35 percent in the Niger Delta live in such poverty. The disparate economic situation led to the rise of Boko Haram, and thus military efforts to quash the group must be coupled with government-led development projects if they are to succeed. Of course, none of this helps the 180 girls who are still out there, possibly in neighboring Cameroon and forced to marry violent insurgents. With the pressures brought by the glare if international attention and the activism of the locals, Pres. Jonathan has little room to delay an immediate rescue of the missing students.

No comments:

Post a Comment