Why has the group unleashed such unprecedented violence in Nig-eria? And why has it targetted the girl students? The answer can be found in its name—while “Boko Haram” loosely translates into a group that is against education and influence of western culture, the real name of the outfit is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad (The Congregation of the People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad).
The aim of the outfit is creation of an Islamic caliphate. Like many other groups who profess to fight for Islam through a different interpretation of the Quran, it wants to take its followers back to the days when Prophet Mohammad lived and preached. And girls, according to these militants, have no right to education. It is un-Islamic and not as per the Quran, says Abubakar Shekau, the Boko Haram chief, who is responsible for turning the group into a violent outfit, targeting Christians and Nigerian security personnel. Muslims suspected of passing on information to the army are also attacked.
In the initial hours after the abduction, the authorities had no idea where the girls had been taken. Frantic searches yielded no results. The assumption was that the girls had been divided into groups and driven out across the border to northern Cameroon, where the militia has a base. Some assumed that the girls may have been driven further on to neighboring Chad.
ANTECEDENTS OF BOKO HARAM
- Called the Congregation of the People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad, which is against western education
- Formed in 2002 by radical Islamic cleric Mohammad Yusuf.
- Woos supporters due to economic disparity and the tensions between Muslims and Christians
- Targets Christians and Nigerian security personnel
- Clashed with the army and police in 2009, which killed 700 followers
- Under present leader Abubakar Shekau, turned more violent, launching deadly attacks
- Claimed responsibility for bombing the United Nations headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, which killed 23 people.
Parents of the children went in groups in search of the girls into the Sambisia forests, where the militia has a camp. They were unable to locate it. As the distraught village waited for news, regular messages came from the Boko Haram leader. He said the girls had converted to Islam and would be sold as sex slaves, or married off to their abductors. Later, the group released a video showing a few of the girls with heads covered in traditional scarves. This was released through the AFP, the French news agency.
Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan was clueless. After criticism from desperate parents and anger among Nigerians, the president agreed to seek global assistance.
The US, UK, Israel and Canada sent forces to assist the Nigerian army. British Prime Minister David Cameron called it an “act of evil”, and offered surveillance aircraft and a military team. “The world is coming together not just to combat it but to do everything we can to help the Nigerians find these young girls.” US first lady Michelle Obama, Pakis-tan’s teenage student Malala Yousafzai, actress Angelina Jolie, and others called for efforts to save the daughters of Chibok. An online petition to save these girls got over two million hits. The incident raised the same question that bullet attack on Malala in Pakistan had raised—why is it okay for boys to seek education, but not for girls?
Nigeria has declared it is willing to negotiate with the captors and release Boko Haram fighters, who are in prisons. Secret negotiations are on but the process is slow. Every day takes a toll on the parents. A rescue operation is difficult, as the lives of over 200 girls are involved. So, the authorities feel that giving in to the demand of the group may be the only option.
Boko Haram was formed in 2002 by Mohammad Yusuf, a radical Islamic cleric, in Maiduguri (Borno) in north-eastern Nigeria. He built a mosque and a school to propagate the faith.
The group started gaining popular support because extra-judicial killings were rampant in the region. People felt alienated and started sending unemployed youths in droves to join Boko Haram.
Initially, it was not a violent movement. But, in 2009, the Nigerian government, worried about reports that the outfit was procuring arms, decided to crack down on the militia. This led to clashes between the two. Almost 700 Boko Haram followers were killed in the army operations. Yusuf was arrested and killed in police custody, further angering his followers.
Abubakar, the current leader, was a close aide of Yusuf and took over the radical outfit. The new leader increased the ferocity as well as the frequency of attacks. Boko Haram became an international name when it claimed responsibility for bombing the United Nations headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, which killed 23 people.
Boko Haram’s sympathizers say it is waging war against corruption. The group’s agitation is against the excesses of the army, which has killed innocents. Economic disparity and the yawning gap between the rich and poor, has compounded the problems in northern Nigeria. This has fed into the tensions between Muslims and Christians, leading to a volatile situation.
Like in any other militant-ridden region, the worst sufferers are the ones without guns, like the girls abducted by Boko Haram. Nigeria will need to negotiate skillfully and patiently to make sure that the Chibok daughters return home safely. But how will it deal with fanatics in the long term?