Mr. President, how long shall we cry” reads a placard held by one of the mothers of the Chibok School girls kidnapped two years ago by Boko Haram terrorist organization as Nigerians mark the infamous second anniversary of the abduction of the girls in the North East of the West African country. Those five words capture the despair of a disappointed and emotionally traumatized parent; a nation failed by not just its leadership but by her people; and more painfully a country abandoned by the international community.
The footage of the captured girls believed to have been shot in December last year aired by CNN - US News network last week, was the latest evidence of the likelihood that the girls were still alive after all. In what may be a public relations stunt by the Boko Haram organisation, the images were a solemn and painful reminder of the collapsed security architecture in Nigeria.
It is very difficult and painful to understand how more than two hundred girls held hostage by Islamist group – Boko Haram are yet to be found since April 14, 2004 when they were kidnapped from their school. It remains a mystery, to say the least. While Nigeria’s government may have its share of blame in the failure to rescue the girls, the world has also failed and seems to surrender to the might and bite of the terrorist group. The defiance of the militant group against the combined military resources from United States, United Kingdom, China, and Israel as well as the regional force of 8,700 troops from Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria speaks of the tenacity, audacity, and depth of terrorism in West Africa. The implication is that global terrorism has really expanded its map beyond known terrorism hot beds of Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East generally to West Africa.
The recalcitrance of the Boko Haram terrorist organization and the inability to rescue the kidnapped girls also point to the limits of public awareness campaigns. Two years ago, the abduction sparked the biggest global social media campaigns with tweeters using the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls that generated more than one million tweets. US First Lady, Michelle Obama joined in the campaign and so did celebrities such as actress Angelina Jolie and Pakistani Malala Yousafzai, the child prodigy and education activist among others. Nigeria’s former president, Jonathan also made an unwise investment of $1.2 million dollars to a Washington public relations firm to create global attention to the national disgrace of a country that could not protect its children. So far, none of these efforts had resulted in the release of the girls. The blaze of publicity was so great that if Boko Haram paid attention to public outcry, the organization could have released the girls by now. But the terrorist group like others elsewhere is tone deaf. Do they care about good image? Nope!
Therefore, the solution does not necessarily depend on massive publicity campaigns. So far, shouting on the mountain top, empty rhetoric on radio and television by pundits and security analysts, colourful op-eds in national and regional newspapers, and mobilising international public opinion have failed to secure the release of the girls. Instead, an additional 2000 children have been abducted since 2014, according to Amnesty International while UNICEF reports an increase in suicide attacks involving girls (from 4 in 2014 to 44 in 2015). Between January 2014 to February 2016, Cameroon tops the list of suicide attacks involving girls at 21; Nigeria 17 and Chad 2. In the past two years alone, according to the UN children’s agency one out of every five suicide attacks involved children and three quarters are girls. The figure is alarming and telling of the damage to the collective psyche of the victims and their families and friends.
The international goodwill towards Nigeria in her effort to rescue the Chibok girls is palpable and reminiscent of the goodwill towards the rescue of trapped 33 Chilean miners following the collapse of San Jose mine in 2010. For example, Mrs. Obama’s impulse is to help the girls and so do many, but talking is cheap. Walking the talk is the greatest challenge to all, especially Nigerians.
In this connection, it is regrettable that Nigerians from the least person to the president have not done enough at halting the menace of terrorists in their midst. For “how long shall we cry” about the apathy towards participation in governance and “how long shall we cry” against alienation from participation in remote parts of the country. It is probably the lack of faith in the country’s governance that civilians are unwilling whistleblowers capable of exposing or unmasking members of the clandestine Boko Haram army in different communities in Nigeria. At this point, human intelligence operation is needed more than ever to truly redress the infamy brought upon Nigeria by the Islamist group. These terrorists are Nigerians and not foreigners and figuring out how to reach them through relatives and friends should be a wise investment of intelligence resources. This is not a war that can be won on the pages of the newspapers or television screens. Quiet but sustained and shrewd diplomacy could be assets at this time. The 11 year manhunt of Osama bin Laden did not yield fruit while his pictures adorned the pages of newspapers in the US and around the world. Instead, he was captured when it seemed everyone had taken eyes off him. If bin Laden’s capture was any guide, Nigeria and her friends should invest more on human intelligence rather than orchestrated media campaign to capture an elusive and sedentary enemy.
Perhaps, the country and the world should begin to think of other options. How about if the girls are all dead - physically? It is imaginable that they are all psychologically wounded and will never be the same persons. It is a hopeless situation not just for the parents but also for those who have invested time and energy towards the unsuccessful rescue of the girls. How does the Nigerian government brighten the faces of the gloomy parents who face the grim possibility of not being able to see their children again? One strategic move could be to take steps to defeat the warped ideology of Boko Haram that opposes girls’ education and western education. The Buhari administration should declare free education of girls and boys throughout the country as a demonstration to defiance to the terrorist group. Already the World Bank has announced a $2.5 million investment in girls’ education around the world in response to anti-girl education while Mrs. Michelle Obama launched a Girls Learn Initiative as a demonstration of solidarity to the Chibok girls and a repudiation of their abductors.
So, “how long shall we cry”! As tears flow down the wet eyes of the girls’ mothers and the country, it may be wise to think outside the emotion and sense of loss. Could the export of terrorism make the world powers to hear the voices of destitute children whose future are compromised by the predatory elite that collude with the West to impoverish the region? As history seems to suggest, if you don’t export oil or terrorism, none of the world powers will pay attention to you. Nigeria’s oil is no longer as attractive as in the past, especially with less emphasis on fossil fuel, slump in oil prices, and match towards energy independence in the US. In the face of gloomy future for oil, will export of violent extremism attract more US attention like in Afghanistan or other regions that US and other countries invested huge sums of money on development, defense, and democracy? No doubt, majority of Nigerians will prefer nonviolence and will reject violent extremism as forerunner to blanket support from the west. Viewed with the lens of complex adaptive systems, there is the potential for emergent and unpredictable behaviour rather than planned. What this means is that we just don’t know to what extent Boko Haram is a Black Swan in relation to change and needed attention from richer nations. Time will tell!
•Dr. Uchenna Ekwo is the President of Center for Media & Peace Initiatives, New York.