To Save Nigeria's Girls From Boko Haram, We'll Need to Help the Boys Too

Boko Haram has figured out that there's more than one way to steal a young Nigerian's life.

A young Nigerian boy in the town of Ijebu-Ode. (Photo: Jamie McDonald—FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Jun 30, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Scott Johnson is a regular TakePart contributor who has headed Newsweek’s Mexico and Baghdad bureaus and is the author of The Wolf and the Watchman: A Father, a Son, and the CIA.

It’s common practice in towns and villages across northern Nigeria for Muslim families to entrust their young boys to the care of religious schools where “scholars” instruct them about the Koran.

As part of this bargain, the boys are asked to beg for alms to help pay for their food, board, and basic necessities.

“But instead of begging, what Boko Haram does is goes around with pennies, and they'll hire these young boys for a penny or two to watch Nigerian military movements or carry messages around for them,” says J. Peter Pham, an expert on Boko Haram at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. “It’s an example of how poverty makes for an easy operational climate, and I would hope the government makes a plan.”

Nigerians would hope so too. Instead, the Nigerian government continues to treat the real threat posed by the insurgent terrorist group, whose name translates roughly as “Western education is forbidden,” as little more than a public relations dilemma best handled by a slick media campaign. That is why the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan last week hired lawyer and former Clinton adviser Lanny Davis for a cool $1.2 million to shore up its image abroad.

So while Boko Haram is quite literally spending pennies to bolster its intelligence gathering operations across the north, and recruiting children into the ranks of its bloody war in the process, Jonathan’s government appears to be more interested in creating a social media response to the near-forgotten #BringBackOurGirls campaign than in saving the girls.

Just one result of this inaction is the emboldening of Boko Haram, which continues to outdo itself with greater depravity. The violence is now threatening to drag not just northern Nigeria but the entire region along for the ride. Since the Chibok abductions, where nearly 300 girls were stolen from their school, Boko Haram has been upping the stakes.

A month after the girls were kidnapped, suspected Boko Haram militants attacked in neighboring northern Cameroon, to the west, kidnapping 10 Chinese workers and stealing several vehicles. Bombings have killed hundreds in cities across the country, from Jos in the center of the country to the horrific attack in the capital last week, when several dozen soccer fans were slaughtered while watching a World Cup soccer game.

Militants are now swarming across broad stretches of the Sahel, in Niger, Cameroon, and elsewhere. In Nigeria they have seized 10 formerly government controlled areas of Borno state, a patch of land exceeding 30,000 square miles and roughly the size of Maryland.

“This group has metastasized,” said Pham. “They’ve gone from a drive-by shooting group to a full-fledged insurgency.”

So far, Nigeria’s government seems more concerned with its image abroad and also with securing Jonathan’s reelection—in which none of the northern states where Boko Haram is active are in play—in eight months. In a recent piece titled “Making a Hash(tag) of Africa Policy,” Pham wrote, “Not only has the Nigerian military been largely ineffectual in its efforts to contain—much less crush—the burgeoning insurgency, but the very army unit spearheading the fight against Boko Haram, the 7th Division, is so dysfunctional that just two weeks ago its soldiers opened fire on their commanding general.”

In a sense, the government may be responding to what it sees as a problem that, for the rest of the world at least, exists primarily on Twitter and Facebook feeds and in the pleas for help emanating from the millions of people who joined the social media campaign.

The campaign did a good job of raising awareness in the days immediately following the Chibok kidnappings, but Pham said its usefulness as a policy tool has probably run its course—and more than that, may be making matters worse by fostering the illusion that tweeting about rescuing the girls is the same as rescuing them.

“Tweets and hashtags do little justice to the complex web of legitimate political, economic, and social grievances” that plague northern Nigeria, Pham said.

Meantime, Boko Haram continues its savage spread. Two weeks ago, 61 girls and 30 boys were kidnapped.

The United States has provided drone technology to scour and patrol the vast ungoverned spaces that comprise Boko Haram’s home turf, and the French, Chinese, and British are helping out with technology, money, and diplomatic pressure.

But the real kernel of the problem lies with the Nigerian government. As long as it continues to believe that a PR campaign might change the story enough to divert people’s attention away from its failures, more kids will get kidnapped, more children will be recruited into the ranks of Boko Haram for pennies on the dollar, and more and more swaths of Africa will be lost to the depredations of thugs.