Published on Saturday in The National
Like many people around the world over the past few weeks, I’ve been anxiously following the story of the 200 Nigerian schoolgirls who were abducted by Boko Haram.
The #bringbackourgirls campaign has grabbed global attention, most notably featuring Michelle Obama holding up a card with the hashtag. I can’t imagine that Boko Haram gives two hoots about a load of tweets, and I’m sceptical about clicktivists and the power of Twitter to frighten quite frankly looney groups like this. It’s possible that the global groundswell of anger may be giving heart on the ground to activists in Nigeria to strengthen their campaign, and is putting pressure on Goodluck Jonathan’s administration to actually do something out of shame. But it is a corrupt government, and one that Nigerians are angry about. This should alert us to the fact that this situation is not as simple as “crazy jihadis kidnap children”.
The well-being of the girls is paramount. But our concern for them doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about why these girls have captured the attention of Ms Obama and the twittersphere. As some have pointed out, when she said “bring back our girls”, did she mean the ones killed by her husband’s drones in Pakistan? This spawned a counter campaign, #bringbackyourdrones.
We are sophisticated enough to be able to balance concern for the girls with analysis of the political forces at play.
Boko Haram hasn’t come out of nowhere. It was part of a wider reaction to local corruption that its members believed could be remedied by their strict version of “sharia law”.
No one is even sure what “Boko Haram” means. In fact, we know very little at all about the region, its politics and its local tensions. Nonetheless they are portrayed as Islamists wielding barbarity through their Islam. The name is translated in the media as being a rejection of the West (“western education is haram”), designed to raise western hackles. But the alternative translation “corruption is haram” gives us better insight into the local problems.
There’s a strong feeling, once again, that this is about saving women from crazy violent Muslim men. Just like Afghanistan, we must “save” women in Nigeria. It is rather convenient that this is also the region where locals have been protesting against multinational corporations that have been exploiting resources and where oil companies have caused spillages, meaning many Nigerians want them out.
The infamous Kony2012 campaign saw a similar groundswell of global support for American intervention and combat troops were duly dispatched. Joseph Kony hasn’t been found, but the troops remain.
Boko Haram’s behaviour is horrific. While its members talk with the language of Islam, their actions are far from Islamic. But if it was foreign intervention and the propping up of a corrupt government that Boko Haram was set up to counter, and if this is what a wider number of groups in the country are fighting about, then American intervention will only exacerbate the problem.
These girls are important human beings who must be safely returned to their families. But they are also important for the insight they provide into how easily their horrific plight has been exploited for political gain, both by their abductors and by outside vested interests.