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On the eve of a major international gathering in Nigeria’s capital of Abuja, the country's government is facing intense global pressure to locate and rescue hundreds of female students kidnapped by the Islamist terror group Boko Haram, and clamp down on its campaign of violence.
Nigeria sees the World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa as an opportunity to highlight its status as Africa's leading economy and a desirable investment destination. It is Africa’s largest oil producer and most populous country, with a population of about 170 million people.
But the furor over the girls' abduction – and President Goodluck Jonathan's ineffective response – has taken center stage. Nigerians have organized large-scale protests in the cities of Abuja and Lagos over what they say is the government’s inaction and mismanagement – a frustration that has been exacerbated by misleading government statements.Early on in the incident, for example, the military announced that the girls, kidnapped from their boarding school in Chibok on April 14, had been freed – information that was quickly refuted by families of the victims. The arrest of a protest leader on Sunday for “posing” as the mother of one of the missing girls (she’s the aunt of two) has only further fueled citizen frustration with the government.
"This is the beginning. Until the girls are back, we will continue [protesting]. I think this is the first step and we will mobilize more and more people," Charlotte Obidairo of the NGO Youth Empowerment and Development Nigeria, told Reuters.
An estimated 6,000 troops are expected to be deployed for security around the WEF, which begins tomorrow and lasts until May 9. Continued protests could disrupt the event, Peter Sharwood-Smith, the West Africa manager for security company Drum Cussac, told Bloomberg News via email. The leader of Boko Haram, an Al Qaeda affiliated group whose name loosely translates to “Western education is forbidden,” said in a video first obtained by Agence France-Presse Monday that he plans to sell the estimated 200 to 276 girls.
The girls’ detention, “along with Boko Haram’s threat to sell off their hostages, could spark further demonstrations, notably in Abuja, in the coming days,” Mr. Sharwood-Smith said.
“Given the heightened security posture in the capital for the WEF event and expected presence of foreign dignitaries, any protests are likely be swiftly dispersed by security forces.”
Foreign governments, including Britain and the United States, have pledged to help Nigeria locate the missing girls. While military aid is unlikely, the US could help in other meaningful ways, The Christian Science Monitor reports.
The US, which “clearly has its eyes on northern Nigeria and the activities of Boko Haram,” could provide useful intelligence, she says. In addition, neighboring countries worried about Nigerian military activity might be relieved by the US involvement.
"Clearly, neighboring countries would not be thrilled at the prospect of Nigerian soldiers storming across the border,” she says, “so one could imagine the US being very helpful with the neighbors.”
Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague, meanwhile, said on Twitter today that “We continue to offer Nigeria assistance.”
Boko Haram has long been a thorn in Nigeria’s side. According to The Christian Science Monitor:
Boko Haram, whose often obtuse philosophy is regarded as generally anti-Western and anti-modern … has been carrying out grisly hit-and-run attacks in villages, churches, mosques, and roadways throughout the northeast for at least five years, afterwards retreating across the border to Cameroon.
But this year, as many as 1,500 people have been killed since January alone, according to human rights organizations.…
Boko Haram escalated its insurgency after [President Goodluck] Jonathan declared a state of emergency last May in three northeastern states. Army leaders insist they are winning the war, but a year later, Boko Haram has proven deadlier than ever. Its attacks often take place in remote villages with the apparent knowledge, but inaction, of local Army units.
While the emergency rule seemed at first to reduce the rate of attacks, "the limitations of this strategy have since been laid bare," says Roddy Barclay, a senior West Africa analyst for Control Risks, a London-based risk assessment firm.
On the same day the kidnapping occurred, a bomb linked to Boko Haram went off in Abuja, killing 75 people. Another bomb detonated there days later, killing another 15 people. These were the first attacks on the capital in two years.
During last week’s protests, a former Nigerian cabinet member, Obiageli Ezekwesili, told the press, “If this happened anywhere else in the world, more than 200 girls kidnapped and no information for more than two weeks, the country would be brought to a standstill.”
However, journalist Lauren Wolfe, who directs the Women Under Siege project at the Women’s Media Center in New York, notes in an article for Foreign Policy that that isn’t necessarily true.
…[I]n the end, this case has gotten more attention than any single case of girls abducted in armed conflict in recent memory, possibly ever. People are paying attention.
As that becomes evident, all the outcry over "why aren't we paying attention" starts to look like it's part of a deeper public distress: Why have we not paid attention in the past when thousands of girls -- and boys -- have been abducted in armed conflict? Why aren't we paying attention, right now, to the girls caught in human trafficking webs or sold into early marriages or held in captivity as "wives" by armed groups? Why are we only now outraged? And will this outrage sustain itself as situations like this one unendingly arise? Will any amount of anger lead to any concrete solution?
What happened to these girls isn't new, sadly. Instances of the trafficking of children in places of conflict are myriad and worldwide….
The kidnapping of so many schoolgirls at once, however, has upped the ante. Boko Haram has chosen a group -- girls -- that is historically vulnerable, yet whose members carry precious undertones about the purity of most societies. And with that designation as the bearers of purity, girls become a group that is little more than a symbol. In reality, these girls are human beings who are marginalized, exploited, and ignored globally….
To view this as a simple case of trafficking (or modern-day slavery, as it is often called) is to overlook a larger point: Crimes against women and girls are not only commonplace, but they go ignored, unprosecuted, and unreported by the international media every single day, especially when they occur in the global South.