Bring Back Our Girls and end Boko Haram’s war on children

Imagine sending your child to school knowing that there’s a chance that he or she won’t return.

Imagine trying to teach knowing that you are a terrorist target.

Imagine being a student, in the middle of an undeclared warzone, knowing that every minute spent in your scantily furnished, poorly defended and under-resourced classroom could be your last.

In parts of Nigeria few people have to imagine this, because for those living in the north-eastern states of Yobe, Borno and Adamawa, it’s a daily reality.

Since 2009, a radical Islamist sect by the name of Boko Haram (‘Boko’ literally meaning ‘book’ and ‘Haram’ meaning ‘forbidden’) has been conducting an unrelenting campaign of terror in an attempt to destabilise Nigeria and impose Sharia law across all of northern Nigeria.

Every and anything is a target – market places, transport hubs, places of worship. More than 4,000 people have been killed in the last five years, according to the International Crisis Group.

But it wasn’t until last month, when on 14 April more than 200 schoolgirls were kidnapped from their dormitories at the Chibok Government Girls Secondary School in Borno, that the world started to really pay attention.

[Correction: the world started to pay attention about a week ago when the protests of angry, despairing Nigerians – exhausted by the insurgency and incredulous at their government’s criminally inept handling of it – finally galvanised the slow-burn of outcry into international headline news.]

But in spite of the rallies, the success of the #BringBackOurGirls and #WhatAboutOurDaughters hashtags, the petitions and the celebrity supporters, three weeks on and the Chibok girls are still missing.

Worse still, no-one seems to know exactly how many girls are missing.

The Nigeria Union of Teachers says that 41 girls managed to escape while 180 girls are still unaccounted for. CNN puts that figure at 223 girls; Time Magazine says its 270; the BBC says “about 230” girls are missing. The most quoted figure, however, is 234.

How can the world can claim to care about the lives of these young women if every last one of them hasn’t been accounted for?

And there are other questions, too. Why, for example, don’t we know all of the names of these missing girls? Where are their pictures? Why has it taken three weeks for the international media broadcast TV interviews with the girls who have escaped? How do more than 200 girls just disappear? And where are they now?

On the latter point, speculation is as rife as it is horrifying.

There are reports that the girls have been trafficked and sold for $12 each; or that they have been “married” to Boko Haram members who are using them as sex slaves and domestic servants.


Reign of terror

But while we anguish over the Chibok kidnappings, let us not forget that more than 20 schools have been destroyed in northern Nigeria since 2009, some 171 teachers have been murdered and hundreds of schoolchildren have lost their lives.

Where was the global outcry when 42 students and teachers at a boys’ school in Yobe were murdered by Boko Haram on 6 July 2013?

Or when Boko Haram gunmen stormed an agricultural college, also in Yobe, killing 65 people on 29 September 2013?

Or just a few weeks ago when six teachers from Dikwa in Borno State were killed and 20 members of their families were abducted?

Or even on Wednesday, when more than 300 people were slaughtered in Gamboru Ngala, a couple of hours away from Chibok?

Let’s leave the question of who is behind Boko Haram’s well-funded and increasingly sophisticated reign of terror for another day. That the aim is political is obvious, so too is the fact that this isn’t about religion.

As one writer put it, Boko Haram is to Islam what Anders Berhing Breivik is to Christianity.

But what’s harder to comprehend is its unbelievably brutal means.

Make no mistake about it: Boko Haram is at war with Nigeria’s children. Not just because it believes that western education is forbidden, as the common interpretation of the group’s name suggests, but because Boko Haram wants to kill Nigeria’s future.

And it’s attempting to do so, with cold-blooded logic, by killing the minds, bodies and spirits of those who will create it.

The only way to stop Boko Haram is to cut off the oxygen that feeds it: a weak and corrupted state, insecurity and massive unemployment.

Even before the insurgency, north-eastern Nigeria, for example, had some of the highest rates of unemployment and out-of-school children in the world.

More than two-thirds of rural girls aged 15 to 19 in the region are unable to read or write. Boko Haram knows that its very survival depends on keeping the population impoverished, fearful and uneducated.

The Safe Schools Initiative – launched during the World Economic Forum in Abuja earlier this week by UN Global Education Envoy Gordon Brown, Education International and the Nigeria Union of Teachers – could play an important role in standing up to terrorism by promoting schools as safe spaces. But it is going to take much more than the US$10 million that’s so far been allocated.

Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy and yet it only spends 1.5 per cent of its GDP on education; the recommended amount is six per cent. If the former senator of Borno State, Ali Modu Sherrif, can spend US$72 million on a brand new Gulfstream jet, then surely the Nigerian government can find the money to invest in safe schools and quality education for all its children?

Because unless Nigeria and its international partners contain the threat posed by Boko Haram and work hard to tackle the issues which led to its creation, this parasite could destroy its host.


Sign the #BringBackOurGirls petition here: