Unlike Boko Haram's many massacres, girls' kidnapping brings it home

The fate of almost 300 teens has galvanized Nigerians and captured world's attention. Why was this a tipping point in reaction to the five-year insurgency?

Sunday Alamba/AP
Brig. Gen. Chris Olukolade, Nigeria's top military spokesman (l.), spoke in Abuja Tuesday to demonstrators calling on the government to rescue the kidnapped school girls of a government secondary school Chibok.

Protesters in red t-shirts are massing in the streets of Abuja, raising their voices and singing new lyrics to the tune of John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance."

“All we are saying is bring back our girls!" they cry repeatedly for hours. Between every line comes the shout, "Alive, now!"

Three weeks ago, Islamist militants snatched hundreds of teenage girls from their school, sparking urgent calls for their rescue. Since then, the outcry has only grown louder, both in Nigeria and abroad, and even among people and media groups who usually ignore the murky world of West African suffering.

The abduction captured the attention of US President Barack Obama, who promised to send “military security personnel and assets” to assist in finding the girls – help that Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan said today he will accept. The government also offered $300,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.

But Boko Haram militants have been slaughtering Nigerians for five years now, including hundreds of children at their schools. Why has this incident suddenly galvanized people?

Several reasons: The numbers of those being killed by the Boko Haram insurgents, combined with the grisly operations they engineered, reached a critical mass after nearly 10 months of ever more horrific attacks on civilians, churches, boys, roadways, mosques, and bus stations. Beyond that, in April Boko Haram  attacks moved from the remote northeast to the capital, closer to the center of Nigeria. 

Yet the main engine of interest may be that the abduction of some 300 schoolgirls who are likely still alive is simply easier for ordinary people to grasp and engage with than a slaughter of the innocent that is quickly cleaned up by authorities, according to local protesters. That engagement has inspired near-daily protests and twitter campaigns like #BringBackOurGirls and #ChibokGirls that have gone viral around the globe.

“Tomorrow it could be me,” said Candy Nathan, a protester who was singing outside the Nigerian Army Headquarters. "My sister, my cousin, anybody.  I’m here on behalf of everybody, and myself.” 

Mass slaughters didn’t bring Ms. Nathan to the streets. But this is different, she says.

“[Massacres] happen here and you can see the corpses, but these ones, we don’t where they are,” she said, speaking of the teenage girls. “We are not sure what is happening to them.  Nobody knows what will happen tomorrow.”

The Boko Haram insurgency has killed thousands of people. Violence has escalated in recent months, with more than 1,500 deaths this year alone.

The number of casualties, the types of attacks, and a steady increase in media attention drove the Boko Haram insurgency to a tipping point, according to Elizabeth Donnelly at the London-based Chatham House. "The outcry, the response that it has drawn from across Nigeria [has] drawn more attention.... I think it comes at a point where there has now been a significant number of headlines related to Boko Haram.”

Nearly 300 of the girls are still missing, and in a video released Monday, Abubakar Shekau, the man who claims to head Boko Haram, says he is holding them as “slaves” to be sold at the market.

Outside Nigerian Army Headquarters, protesters say that Boko Haram’s newly amped-up infamy is no accident, since it also appears to be spreading, with bomb blasts in the capital that killed nearly 100 people in April. 

Mr. Shekau released a video threatening more attacks in the capital. “I don't care if you call me a liar, a mad man, or a stupid person. All I know is that you all are ignorant,” he said in his native Hausa language.

He also threatened President Jonathan, Christians, and Muslims who associate with Christians or who believe in democracy. Shekau's video shows him flanked by armed men in fatigues and masks, and threatening to sell girls as young as nine years of age into forced marriage. The video showed no girls. He appeared almost as a caricature of a radical, as he laughed maniacally. 

Outside the defense ministry, Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Chris Olukolade stood silently on the edge of the protest as fathers and mothers in the crowd shouted, “They are our daughters!” Brothers cried out, “They are our sisters!”

Mr. Olukolade took the bullhorn to relay the military’s response: “Be sure that we are listening to you; the protest is understood,” he said, promising to meet privately with protest leaders.

Armed soldiers stood nearby, but there was no sign of hostility from either side.

Ojonwa Miachi, a national youth advocate with the United Nations Millennium Campaign, says the kidnappings along with previous slaughters of hundreds of school boys, has made the insurgency personal, even for people geographically far from danger.

Ms. Miachi worries about the effect of Boko Haram attacks on Nigerian schooling: “Everybody’s concerned, because this is about the girls, and this is a defining moment for not only Nigeria but for other countries too ... this is [also] an attack on education.”

Boko Haram was today characterized by two former senior US officials as a highly diffuse group with different wings and little or no central command whose members range from radical extremists to gangsters.

In a phone briefing by former US State Department deputy chief for African affairs Johnnie Carson, and former US ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell, the latter said that Boko Haram is “not so much an organization as a movement,” and that Shekau is “more a warlord than a leader.” He noted that Shekau waited three weeks from the kidnapping of the girls to claim responsibility (this week), and that this suggests the face of Boko Haram may often not know which group is taking what action. 

Amb. Carson said that the US has been "engaged" with the Jonathan administration for more than a year on questions regarding the group, but that Nigeria has been slow to take help, and that there has "been a reluctance to accept our analysis of the drivers of the problem in [Nigeria's] north," which includes male youth unemployment over 50 percent and low grade education, health care and education. 

Until recently, Amb. Campbell pointed out, few Nigerians were "paying attention" to Boko Haram, partly due to the difference between the urban more cosmopolitan and prosperous south, and the north. 

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