What or who will #BringBackOurGirls?

The deep roots of the kidnapping crisis in Nigeria

#BringBackOurGirls has gone massively viral in the social media world, as people around the globe clamor for action to save hundreds of school-age girls abducted from their school in Nigeria. The girls were abducted by the group Boko Haram, a self-described Muslim group that ostensibly advocates an “Islamic” state in the North of Nigeria. The roughly 230 girls said to be missing were abducted from their school three weeks ago creating a major national issue that emerged into an international conversation following the arrest of a leader of a protest movement calling on the government to take action.

Tensions surrounding government action have increased markedly ever since Boko Haram leaders have announced that they plan on selling some of the girls. The Nigerian government has so far appeared ineffective, unable to find where exactly the girls are being held, which has prompted a significant number of petitions and a Twitter firestorm demanding U.S. or European military forces step in to rescue the girls.

The impulse is understandable. However, like many of the humanitarian crises in Africa that have become international campaigns, this situation has significant roots which western military intervention cannot solve and will only exacerbate.

Would they find them?

The first issue is whether or not any military force can actually rescue these girls. The Nigerian military has failed so far to locate them in the vast northeastern part of the country, where they have a fairly limited presence. The area  is a stronghold for Boko Haram.

However to assume U.S. (or European) military might can just swoop in and rescue them in a daring raid is at the very least improbable. Similar to the situation in the hunt for Joseph Kony, these vast underdeveloped areas offer numerous places to hide. Further they are a part of a broader region that also includes Cameroon and Chad, further expanding the target area.

The girls are almost surely spread across a variety of hard to find places, and the most likely outcome is that some set of them will be found and following that the others will be killed. At even the most optimistic, as the BBC admits, it could take literally months if not longer to locate the various hiding places.

Would intervention solve the problem?

In short: no. Understanding the Boko Haram phenomenon means understanding Nigeria much more deeply. The immense poverty in Nigeria—in 2011 it was estimated that 92 percent of the population lived on less than two dollars a day—has a regional character and is worse in the northern part of the country. Further what development does exist is also regionally unbalanced. Overlaid on top of this are other social conflicts that further intensify the regional divide.

The election of President Goodluck Jonathan was followed by significant social unrest; presidents usually come from the more impoverished North to maintain the precarious regional unity. However, President Jonathan is from the South which only further highlights the divide.

The government has waged a significant effort to combat Boko Haram, both sides have committed atrocities, and the status quo is essentially unchanged.

Boko Haram itself is able to thrive in this atmosphere. They are aided by the fact that Nigerian politicians often use ethnic and religious appeals to wage their power struggles which further exacerbate conflicts between, for instance, pastoralists and farmers. In the context of deep and seemingly inescapable poverty and social struggle of various types inflected with religious rancor, politically alienated groups like Boko Haram can and do find a hearing among those looking for a way out of the morass.

Further there are other issues at play. One is that further “security assistance” to Nigeria will strengthen the hand of the very same government that is already implicated as an instrument in North-South division. This means deepening the conflict not lessening it. Further Western intervention on behalf of said government could have the same effect.

Even on the off chance either of these options does save the abducted girls, it would most likely do nothing to solve the underlying issues, and perhaps make them worse. This might mean more girls being kidnapped, and will assuredly mean more devastating attacks across Nigeria. This is exactly what has played out over and over in the various campaigns to capture Joseph Kony. The campaigns have led to lots of killing, but have solved no problems, hence the recurring script.

What can help?

Of course none of this is very comforting; many people want to do something to help in such a terrible situation. There will be those who view anti-intervention arguments like ours and say “There is always a reason not to do something.” Indeed, and in this case several very good reasons. If we learned anything not just from the Kony situation, but from the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, military intervention, and particularly that of Western origin, is not a sword that can simply cut through the thorny social and economic issues in post-colonial states.

The only way to eliminating groups like Boko Haram is to isolate them in a meaningful way. Nigeria needs an actual development plan that eliminates poverty, deals with regional inequities, combats corruption, provides services  and privileges ecological protection and rehabilitation. It is the broader social context of the country that allows Boko Haram to operate and continually launch deadly attacks and mount large-scale, brazen kidnapping operations.

Obviously the Nigerian government is one of the most disgustingly neo-colonial on the continent, where a tiny super elite steals billions and billions of wealth while allowing the rest of the country to live in squalor and poverty. It is responsible for the situation in the North; its failings allow groups like Boko Haram to grow and it will not solve the societal problems in a way that can stop Boko Haram or others of their ilk.

The elites don’t need more weapons or more money; they need to be removed from power. As long as this does not happen the girls of the Nigerian north won’t be safe, the Niger delta will remain polluted and the slums of Lagos will continue to be a massive human rights catastrophe.

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