By Ishaan Tharoor
It’s been three weeks, and hundreds of pupils from Chibok Government Secondary Girls School in Nigeria are still missing, kidnapped by Nigerian terror group Boko Haram. Their plight has sparked protests and global outrage, including a now viral Twitter hashtag, #BringBackOurGirls. As the girls remain hidden by their captors, fears for their health and safety increase. Here’s what you need to know t0 get up to speed.
On April 15, a convoy of trucks carrying Boko Haram fighters — more about them below — arrived at the school in Chibok, a remote northeastern town in Nigeria. They seized more than 300 girls from the school dormitory, burned its food supplies and razed the building before racing off with their captives into the bush. Some of the girls escaped, but more than 200 remain in Boko Haram custody. (The school’s principal told the Wall Street Journal that at least 223 girls are still missing, while other reports suggest the number is around 276.) They are believed to be between 16 and 18 years old.
On Tuesday, suspected Boko Haram gunmen reportedly captured eight more girls, ages 12 to 15, as well as livestock from another village in northeastern Nigeria.
What is Boko Haram?
It’s a Nigerian Islamist militant group that has been operating in the country’s northeast since 2002. The name Boko Haram means, literally, “Western education is sinful” in the local Hausa language. In recent years, the group has waged a bloody campaign against schools in the country’s Muslim-majority northeast in a bid to propagate shariah as the only law of the land. It is rumored to have ties to al-Qaeda, as well as other affiliated outfits in Africa, such as Somalia’s al-Shabab. Through bombings and shooting sprees on a host of civilian and government targets, Boko Haram has claimed hundreds of lives since its insurgency began, centered on the city of Maiduguri, capital of Borno state. Months of emergency rule and a brutal Nigerian army counterinsurgency have failed to defeat the group.
Where are the militants keeping the schoolgirls?
Chibok, south of Maiduguri, is in the country’s remote northeast, far from Abuja and even further from Lagos, the coastal metropolis whose bustle and boom have come to define Africa’s most populous nation for many outsiders. It’s believed Boko Haram is holding the girls captive somewhere in the forests of the region. According to an Associated Press report, two of the girls have died from snakebite. One of the girls who escaped told the New Yorker that the rest were not far from Chibok. Immediately after the mass abduction, parents and locals in Chibok attempted a rescue sortie into the forest to find their loved ones. But they were eventually dissuaded because of their lack of firepower and out of concern that confronting the militants would further endanger the schoolgirls.
What is Boko Haram going to do to the girls?
No one knows for sure, but many fear the worst. It’s been rumored the Christian girls in the group were forced to convert to Islam. A video released this week appears to show Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, declaring that the girls will be sold as brides — in effect, made into sex slaves. “God instructed me to sell them; they are his properties, and I will carry out his instructions,” says Shekau in the video. It’s unclear when the footage was shot.
That’s awful. Has this happened before?
Sadly, yes. Despite its particular ideological bent, Boko Haram is one of many fringe, guerrilla outfits around the world to kidnap women and coerce them in various ways. In 1996, the Lord’s Resistance Army, the militia-turned-messianic-cult of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony — subject of another Twitter frenzy — captured 139 schoolgirls from their dormitories. The girls were beaten, abused and raped by their captors. It took the pursuit and entreaties of a nun to free the majority of them. But four of the girls died, and the last were eventually rescued by 2006.
Surely Nigeria’s government won’t let the schoolgirls languish in captivity for that long. Will it?
The signs aren’t all that encouraging. Here’s the government’s initial reaction, summed up by Nigeria-based journalist Alexis Okeowo:
The day after the abduction, the Nigerian military claimed that it had rescued nearly all of the girls. A day later, the military retracted its claim; it had not actually rescued any of the girls. And the number that the government said was missing, just over a hundred, was less than half the number that parents and school officials counted: according to their tally, two hundred and thirty-four girls were taken.
Mounting domestic outrage — and international bewilderment — has compelled Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to promise their rescue. “Wherever these girls are, we’ll get them out,” he said in a public television address on Sunday. But he has yet to visit the region, and subsequent reports that the Nigerian first lady, Patience Jonathan, may have ordered the arrest of activists protesting the government’s inefficacy has further muddied the waters. The slow official response has reinforced the perception that Nigeria’s ruling establishment is not invested in the lives of people like the Chibok schoolgirls, who come from a historically marginalized part of the country that has grown wary of the central state.
What can be done to save the girls?
It’s a bit unclear. Even if the girls’ exact location is known, a robust military operation may endanger them. In 2012, Nigerian and British commandos tried to rescue two British and Italian contract workers held hostage by militant jihadis, but the assault led to the workers’ deaths at the hands of their captors.
Foreign governments including the United States and France, which has spent quite some time combating Islamist militancy in West Africa, have promised to give practical support and share intelligence with the Nigerian government. The United States has provided considerable counterterrorism assistance to Nigeria in the past. Local officials and journalists are using a network of intermediaries to learn more about the girls’ condition.
Boko Haram is a fanatical terrorist group, but it sprung up from an environment shaped by government neglect, corruption and mismanagement. Its zeal and disorganized tactical structure make dialogue with the government difficult. But, as is the case for insurgencies elsewhere, the efforts of local interlocutors — applying whatever leverage they can muster — may be the best hope for a peaceful resolution to a shocking, unacceptable situation.
What does the continuing crisis mean for Nigeria?
The global attention now focused on the plight of the missing schoolgirls comes perhaps at the worst time for the Jonathan administration. On Wednesday, Abuja is set to host the World Economic Forum, an event intended to burnish the oil-rich nation’s growing global clout. Jonathan and Chinese premier Li Keqiang are slated to deliver the opening address. Now, the disappearance of these schoolgirls — and the underlying questions it raises about Nigeria’s governance and fragile security situation — will likely cloud proceedings.
Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a Senior Editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.