Social media has been buzzing with the story about 243 Nigerian schoolgirls who were kidnapped over two weeks ago, most of whom remain missing. This is the kind of news that turns my stomach. And while I’m glad that social media is raising awareness about this story, it’s often addressed in ways that make me uncomfortable. I am by no means an expert on the subject, but I’ve tried to break down the story and responses in a way that makes them easier to understand. What We Know
- What Happened: On April 14, 276 girls, mostly between the ages of 16 and 18, were kidnapped from a government school in Chibok, Nigeria by a group known as Boko Haram, which loosely translated, means “Western Education is Forbidden”. About 43 of the girls managed to escape in the hours and days following the kidnapping, but the remaining girls have not been heard from. Unverified reports have trickled in indicating that the girls are being sold off as “wives” at a rate of $12 each. Loved ones are devastated that little to no effort is being made to rescue the girls.
- The Context: Before British colonization, the Bornu Empire, which was located around the area that is now northeastern Nigeria, was a sovereign, primarily Muslim state. British colonization brought Christian missionaries, who introduced western education as a tool for proselytization. This lead to a long-standing suspicion of western education, which became known as “boko”, a word that means “fake”. Post-colonial Nigeria is broken up into 36 states, and there is a vast wealth disparity between the states. Borno State, located in the approximate region of the former Bornu Empire, and the birthplace of Boko Haram, is among the poorest of these states. This inequality of resource distribution has made it a prime territory for unrest. Boko Haram is an extremist Muslim rebel group that has been terrorizing Nigeria for years. The group, who’s official name is Congregation of the People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad, advocate for shari’a law, and are fighting against all westernized forms of government and education. They attack almost weekly, and the death toll for 2014 alone is estimated to be about 1,500. As recently as yesterday, up to 20 people were killed and another 60 injured in a car bomb in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital.
What Is Misunderstood
- This is not a case of Muslims persecuting Christians. This is a case of extremist terrorizing civilians. Yes, it is true that Boko Haram is Muslim. But the girls who were kidnapped were both Christian and Muslim. Although Boko Haram certainly opposes Christianity, in the past it has targeted Muslim politicians, because it believes that all participation in civil politics is counter to shari’a law. They have also targeted Muslim clerics who speak out against them.
- This is not an an isolated incident. In February, Boko Haram attacked a different school, killing upwards of 29 schoolboys. They have made a pattern of attacking schools and universities, which is why the Chibok school was closed during the time leading up to the attack. The girls had returned briefly to take exams when they were kidnapped.
What Is Irrelevant
- “Why is everyone so worried about Sterling’s comments when 200 girls have been kidnapped in Nigeria?” Because racism matters. Because freedom of speech and privacy matter. The fact that people think these issues are worth talking about and reporting on is not a threat to the Chibok girls who were kidnapped or to their story.
- “Why did the international community come together for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 disappearance and the South Korean ferry disaster, but not for this?” The Chibok schoolgirl kidnapping is a completely different situation because it involves a large group of heavily armed militia who are hiding in a forest and moving back and forth across international borders. International assistance for the MH370 and the South Korean ferry did not involve any use of force.
What We Can Do
- Not much. I did a little research to see if I could find some information about how we (average Americans) can help in a tangible way. What I found was pretty much nothing. We obviously can’t go marching through the forests of Borno and wag our fingers at the rebels and demand that they free the girls. There’s no Kickstarter campaign that guarantees their safe return if funding is reached. I don’t think I ever realized the level of power that I’m used to having at my fingertips until I came upon this situation and realized I had almost none.
- Keep organizing. I’ll be honest: I’m pretty sure that Boko Haram is not interested in how many people hashtag #bringbackourgirls on twitter. But hopefully the Nigerian government is, and if there is going to be any real effort to reach the girls, it’s most likely going to involve the government. There have been organized protests around Nigeria and at Nigerian embassies all over the world demanding that they take action to rescue the girls. At they very least, we will be showing our support for the girls and their families.
- Brainstorm. Even with the research I’ve done, I’ve only scratched the surface of a very complex issue. It doesn’t seem likely that anything short of strong military action will be able to get the girls back. That type of military response could have huge negative implications for the civilians in Borno State and for Nigeria in general, not to mention putting the girls themselves right in the line of fire. It wasn’t too long ago that Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign to take down the leader of the LRA (a Christian rebel group in central Africa who similarly victimizes children) crashed and burned after it came under harsh criticism for oversimplifying another very complex situation. We live in the age of TED talks and crowd-funded start-ups. Every single day I see or read something that changes the way I view the world. I know that there are some geniuses out there who are just dying to tell us how to mediate conflicts involving rebel groups like Boko Haram and the LRA. I’d love to hear your ideas.