Bring Back (All of) Our Girls

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Remember when Boko Haram insurgents abducted 276 schoolgirls in the village of Chibok? The world came together through social media, condemning the action and demanding the terrorists #BringBackOurGirls. The world’s eyes were fixed on Nigeria at the time of the kidnapping in April of 2014, but as authorities made little progress, public attention shifted elsewhere. Though around 50 of the schoolgirls escaped soon after their abduction, most of them remained captive.

In October of 2016, a full two and a half years after their kidnapping, 21 of the Chibok girls were released by Boko Haram militants. Their freedom sent waves of celebration through Twitter and other social media. But many were not quite as celebratory, as these 21 girls were just a fraction of the greater issue.

Those closest to the conflict know a stark reality. Per Engr Satomi Ahmad, the executive chairman of Borno’s State Emergency Management Agency, the Chibok schoolgirls do not “even represent 0.1 percent, not even 0.1 percent, of the entire abduction of girls.” Since the beginning of Boko Haram’s insurgency, the Nigerian government estimates 9,000 girls have been kidnapped. Mr. Ahmad believes at least 13,000 more are unaccounted for, with possibly even more missing from areas that are too dangerous for the government to assess.

While the crisis in Nigeria has raged on, public attention has been diverted to innumerable other conflicts and events: IS’s conflicts in the Middle East and terrorist attacks; Brexit; the American election and ascendency of Donald Trump. Despite the substance of these stories, the singular focus of the surrounding media sensationalism has fostered worldwide ignorance of an enormous political and humanitarian crisis in Nigeria.

Boko Haram initiated its military operations in 2009 to create an Islamic state centered in the northeastern Nigerian state of Borno, promoting a version of Islam that forbids taking part in any political or social activity associated with Western society. The group has bombed and terrorized the city of Maiduguri, its de facto headquarters, as well as surrounding areas in Borno since 2009. During the height of its power in 2014, Boko Haram expanded its operations to the neighboring countries of Cameroon and Chad. That year, it was the world’s deadliest terrorist group with 6,664 killings, They further disrupted the lives of an estimated 2.6 million people who were displaced by the conflict.

Boko Haram no longer controls the vast territory it did in 2014, largely due to the efforts of a coalition of forces from Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. Unfortunately, the patterns of its fighters’ violence have not mirrored the shrinking of their territory. On Saturday, Boko Haram gunmen ambushed a convoy of motorists near Maiduguri, killing seven. Three days earlier, they attacked a military base in Borno. Their abductions have continued in alarming numbers.

Boko Haram fighters have created a state of terror in Borno and a widespread humanitarian crisis. With their territory shrinking and circumstances becoming increasingly dire, they have relocated to the Sambisa forest and no longer steal only women; they now steal cows, goats, and any kind of food they can find to feed their thousands of fighters.

Their plundering of crops and cattle has created famine-like conditions across much of Borno, a state already subject to food insecurity as acts of terror have caused farmers to flee their land. Children and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to starvation, and the lack of food exacerbates deficiencies in Borno’s healthcare system. There are far more sick children than there are hospital beds, and many mothers must stand by helplessly as their children suffer.

Doctors Without Borders, which has worked in Borno since 2014, recently reported that it hardly sees any children under the age of 5 at its clinics, hospitals, or feeding centers. This slice of the population has all but disappeared from this region of Nigeria due to measles, diarrhea, pneumonia, and malaria, all of which pose much greater threats when children are simultaneously starving. Doctors Without Borders and other humanitarian groups also have faced some bureaucratic obstruction in delivering aid. For Nigeria, the most populous African nation, admitting to a malnutrition crisis would deeply embarrass their elected officials. President Muhammadu Buhari has accused the United Nations of exaggerating his country’s crisis, while Borno’s governor has said that some aid groups should leave. Petty politics is obscuring the reality that Nigerians are facing the risk of starvation every day.

Boko Haram has fundamentally changed and destroyed thousands of people’s lives, especially those of the women and girls abducted by the group. Boko Haram uses the promise of marriage to lure men to fight for them, finding their new insurgents brides abducted from across Borno.. If these girls refuse to come with the militants, often the fighters will kill their family members before taking the girls anyway. Few women are safe from abduction by Boko Haram, even girls who have not yet reached puberty. This generation of women is undergoing a systematic removal from Borno society, used only to produce babies and future fighters for Boko Haram forces. Boko Haram claims that the women they capture do not want to return to Nigerian society, but the government and humanitarians know that this is blatantly false.

Even when women escape and come back to their families and communities, there are seeds of doubt as to where their true allegiances lie. Boko Haram has used women as suicide bombers, so many Nigerians are slow to trust women who flee captivity.

As the violence continues, the world must take notice of the atrocities committed by Boko Haram. They regularly kill innocent civilians, abduct women, and steal food, forcing others into starvation. The conflict requires vigilance from both international governments and aid groups, but to finally end Boko Haram’s violence and terror, the global citizenry must care too.




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