How to bring back the Nigerian schoolgirls, three months on

By Naunihal Singh

Chibok girlsOn Monday, it will be exactly three months since Boko Haram kidnapped over two hundred schoolgirls from the town of Chibok, in Nigeria. Briefly a cause célèbre, the girls have now been mostly forgotten by the citizens, celebrities, and politicians in other countries who once passionately pled for their release, flooding the Internet with over four million tweets marked #bringbackourgirls. A viral hashtag, it seems, is a fever that breaks quickly. Meanwhile, the girls, last seen in a video released a month after they were captured, remain in captivity under what are, at best, difficult and inhumane conditions.

The #bringbackourgirls moment did, however, accomplish something important: it forced the Nigerian government to acknowledge the abduction. At first, the government had tried to make the problem go away by denying that it even existed. The day after the kidnapping, the military claimed that it had rescued almost all of the girls, a blatant falsehood given that no rescue effort had been even attempted. Three weeks went by before President Goodluck Jonathan was even willing to meet with the families of the abductees, and even then he shifted the blame for the girls’ plight to their families, implying that they had failed to sufficiently cooperate with the authorities. It was an entire month before he was willing to accept foreign assistance. Without intense pressure from the outside, it is likely that almost nothing would have been done, which is precisely why local activists first created the hashtag.

This mysterious reluctance to respond to the kidnapping reflects a paranoid belief, shared by many supporters of the President, that it was actually a hoax cooked up by northern politicians to embarrass Jonathan less than a year before national elections. This explains the behaviour of the First Lady of Nigeria, Patience Jonathan, who reportedly accused advocates for the families of the victims of being members of Boko Haram, and encouraged the arrests of two of their leaders.

In addition to political paranoia, the abduction of the girls also exposed a serious lack of Nigerian military capacity. On paper, Nigeria has one of the most capable militaries in sub-Saharan Africa, with a budget of over two billion dollars (one estimate for the entire security budget places it as high as $5.8 billion), an army of a hundred and thirty thousand, and, by regional standards, a substantial air force. However, the armed forces are seriously hobbled by corruption, so spending does not translate into capacity. Israeli drones that Nigeria purchased in 2006 have been grounded because of a lack of maintenance. Soldiers on the frontlines say that they do not have proper food, shelter, or equipment, and that they are not adequately paid. Frustration has reached such a level that soldiers in the Seventh Division recently opened fire on their commanding officer, Major General Ahmadu Mohammed, after twelve of their comrades were killed in an ambush.

Given these problems, foreign governments are concerned that the Nigerian military may be losing the battle against Boko Haram. In May, Alice Friend, the Pentagon’s principal director for African affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “we’re now looking at a military force that’s, quite frankly, becoming afraid to even engage.” Boko Haram has been striking with impunity, setting off bombs in the capital, Abuja, and in major regional cities in the north, and launching larger scale attacks at towns and villages. For example, on the night of May 5th, they launched a twelve-hour attack on the town of Gamboru Ngala, killing over three hundred people and laying waste to the town. In the first three months of this year alone, Boko Haram killed over fifteen hundred people. Since 2009, they have killed at least thirty-three hundred Nigerians, close to the death toll over four decades of killing by multiple armed actors in Northern Ireland.

In addition, civilians in the north also have to worry about being detained, abused, and possibly killed by their own armed forces. An investigation by Amnesty International and the Associated Press showed that, last year, the military delivered seventeen hundred and ninety-five dead bodies to just one mortuary in a single month. More recently, the Nigerian military has been accused of killing six hundred detainees who escaped when Boko Haram attacked a military barracks where they were being held. The military has also detained large numbers of Nigerians, including many who are not suspected of any involvement in Boko Haram. In fact, it has been argued that the abduction of the schoolgirls was in retaliation to the government’s earlier detention of more than a hundred daughters and wives of insurgents, none of whom were, themselves, accused of any crimes. The head of Boko Haram warned, in a video in 2012, “Since you are now holding our women, just wait and see what will happen to your own women.”

The ruthlessness of the Nigerian Army is not just morally abhorrent, it makes it more difficult for the government to prevail in this conflict. Textbook counter-insurgency strategy involves winning over the hearts and minds of local inhabitants, in part to obtain effective intelligence about anti-government groups and their activities. This intelligence strips the insurgency of its ability to hide among the populace (like a fish in water, as Mao said) and allows the government to target them directly. However, when residents of the village of Kayamla informed the military that Boko Haram members had camped out in their village, they had to wait five days for a response, at which point a fighter jet shot up the village, killing ten villagers and no insurgents.

Human-rights violations also block the military from receiving much needed foreign military assistance. Under the Leahy Amendment, the U.S. government is constrained in terms of how much military assistance it can offer countries with bad human-rights records; similar concerns inhibit European countries as well. While there have been calls by some in Congress to waive these restrictions, this would be a mistake, as it would reduce a critical incentive for the military to reform its counter-insurgency strategy. If there are real reductions in human-rights abuses, the likely result is better intelligence and increased assistance, which should make it possible for the Nigerian military to turn the tide, given that Boko Haram is estimated to be, at most, a few thousand strong and their fighters appear to lack prior military experience, unlike insurgents in Iraq and Mali. Right now, Nigeria’s problems are largely self-inflicted, and so they can be corrected.

Although Nigerian politicians could lead a master class in political inertia, it may not be possible for Jonathan to continue ignoring what is going on. Bombs are going off in Abuja on a regular basis, some of them just fifteen minutes from the Presidential residence at Aso Rock. The girls remain in the news at home, with one Nigerian pop star recently declaring that she was prepared to “offer up her virginity” for their return. Protesters demanding the return of the abducted girls have not gone away, despite having been arrested, banned, and beaten by government-sponsored counter-protesters.

So how to #bringbackourgirls, three months on? Foreign troops cannot swoop in and rescue the girls. Even if they are all in one place and can be located (Nigeria claims to know their location, but there are reasons to be skeptical), there is widespread agreement that it would be close to impossible to free them without a high number of casualties.

Instead, concerned global citizens have to work for the release of the girls with Nigerian groups. They have to shield local activists from government harassment, and battle the news cycle and compassion fatigue to keep the spotlight on the abductees (perhaps with monthly, coordinated bursts of grassroots efforts).

Last, and more controversially, international activists should support local calls for the government to negotiate the release of the hostages. The armed conflict is already so bad; it is hard to see how a deal could create incentives that would make things worse. In addition, Boko Haram has always wanted to exchange the girls for some of their jailed comrades. What is less clear is whether the Nigerian government is interested in doing so. There have been conflicting statements and rumours—that negotiations were ongoing, that Jonathan scuttled an agreement at the last minute. This would not be surprising, but it represents a loss that is, in one sense, irretrievable. The girls were about to take their exams at school when they were abducted. Each day that the girls remain in captivity is another, forfeited day that they remain in danger. If all our tweets and Instagram posts were truly driven by a desire to help these girls, then we have to stand with the people of Nigeria long after it is fashionable or trendy to do so.

  • Singh is an assistant professor in the department of international-security studies at the Air War College, in Montgomery, Alabama, U.S.A. and the author of “Seizing Power,” a book about why some coups fail and others succeed, from Johns Hopkins University Press. The views expressed here are the author’s and do not represent those of the Air War College, the United States Air Force, or the Department of Defense.