Nearly a month ago a group of Islamic fanatics kidnapped nearly 300 girls from schools in Nigeria. Estimates vary how many are still held captive, but it may be as many as 276. The world barely noticed. Scratched its belly, yawned and wondered what’s for dinner?
The “reaction” of the international community to the abductions has been a sad, pathetic joke without a punchline. That 276 girls could be kidnapped, probably beaten, possibly raped, thoroughly terrorized and threatened with being sold as sex slaves is an abomination.
The Nigerian government seems inept at best and utterly powerless to force the Islamic extremists of Boko Haram to take a backward step. You can’t negotiate or reason with unreasonable men and this story may not end well. The inability of Nigeria, other African nations and the United Nations to muster anything more than tepid concern and a sluggish response forces the cynic in me to think the only value Africa ever has to the rest of the world is its natural resources first and its people as a secondary matter.
Veteran journalist Tracie Powell’s All-Digitocracy reports on how the mass kidnapping is being covered:
- Nigeria-based Vanguard News reports that Boko Haram kidnapped 11 more girls on Monday from a village in Northeastern Nigeria;
- Allafrica.com carries another Vanguard News story that a coalition of youth and students promise to mobilize a national hunger strike if the abducted Chibok girls are not released by May 24. That date is 40 days from April 14, when more than 370 female students were kidnapped by Boko Haram insurgents;
- The Associated Press published its interview with a 16-year-old who escaped the abductors in Chibok. Among new details: School guards fought for an hour before fleeing the insurgents;
- The Washington Post and several other outlets say United States Secretary of State John Kerry called Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan with an offer to send a team of American law enforcement and military experts to find the missing school girls;
- The Nigerian-based blog 360Nobs posts photos from a #bringbackourgirls rally held outside the Nigeria High Commission Office in London;
- A 2012 BBC report, “Who Are Nigeria’s Boko Haram Islamists,” provides background information on the group responsible for the kidnappings;
- The Washington Post answers eight basic questions about the abduction, the Nigerian government’s response to it, and the Nigerian protests that have led to international outrage.
Another question is Boko Haram has been murdering and terrorizing Nigeria for years now. Why did it take a mass kidnapping before the world finally started to pay attention?
The real reason for the disproportionate amount of press coverage and outrage this time around, experts say, has to do with a combination of things: the Nigerian government’s tepid response to the missing girls, the international media’s initial indifference, and Nigerians becoming fed up with both.
“The initial assumption was that the girls would be rescued in a matter of days,” Obasi says. But “this tragic situation dragged on, with the Nigerian government seemingly unable to find a solution.” From the start, Nigerian security forces did not appear particularly motivated to find the girls, Mausi Segun, a researcher for Human Rights Watch based in northern Nigeria, told Mother Jones last week. She says the military was not making use of information provided by parents and locals in its rescue efforts. Meanwhile, the government of Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has formed no rescue operation, and falsely reported earlier on that some of the girls had been rescued. Jonathan waited 19 days to create a “fact-finding” committee. (Nigerian First Lady Patience Jonathan recently alleged that women protesting in Abuja against the government’s weak response to the Chibok abductions had fabricated the kidnappings.)
Adding insult to injury, the international media largely ignored the massive abduction for the first week or so. In response, some Nigerians lashed out at the Western press for not covering the kidnapping of hundreds of black girls in the way that it likely would have covered the kidnapping of hundreds of white girls, and launched the Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. The campaign to rescue the girls spurred the belated outpouring of global press coverage on the abductions and on the origins and motivations of Boko Haram.
The kidnapping and the initial radio silence “hit a nerve in the Nigerian diaspora and among communities of color, and in particular women and girls,” says Adotei Akwei, a former Africa advocacy director for Amnesty International. Christopher Anzalone, an expert on political violence and terrorism at McGill University, agrees. “I think that the media in certain places, such as the United States, which did not initially report much on the most recent kidnapping, may be trying to ‘make up’ for their tardiness.”
Whenever something so terrible as this occurs in a sovereign country, even the most accommodating and earnest offers of aid and assistance must be tempered by how it can blowback with unintended consequences. In the case of African nations and Nigeria’s dilemma in particular, anything the U.S. can offer to facilitate the safe return of the kidnapped girls must be the paramount concern.
Yet it cannot help the Nigerians for the U.S. to walk in and start calling the shots. Destabilizing President Goodluck Jonathan’s government might end up pushing the country into the waiting arms of the Boko Haram extremists whom already seem quite capable to strike at will and act with impunity. The Nigerians have already delayed too long and acted too timidly. Demonstrating to the international community they need the Western powers to come and rescue their daughters may be a cure deadlier than the malady.
Yet, I fear the humanity issues at play here may be far less of a concern for the international community than the economic long-term risk of embarrassing a shaky, but otherwise established oil-producing government.