The saga of over 200 school girls abducted by Nigerian terror group Boko Haram has witnessed yet another cruel twist. Authorities have now revised the estimates from an initial hundred to eight, two hundred forty three and then now two hundred seventy six.
Whether or not the government ever gets the figures right, there is a child shaped vacuum in each parents heart that aches for each daughter turned dubitable statistic.
Beyond the numbers is the deeply disturbing fact that this incident highlights the stark brutality of the terror war on Nigeria.
On April 14, a week before I arrived Nigeria on a relief mission, suspected Boko Haram insurgents attacked the predominantly Christian village of Chibok and herded of hundreds of innocent female students.
The national and global news reports have been picking up but this is not the first time jihadist group Boko Haram has conducted abductions.
In 2005, Boko Haram infamously abducted Christian pastors and moved them into their mountain camps where they were used as slaves until their subsequent rescue by the Nigerian army.
In 2009, Boko Haram’s leader, Mohammed Yusuf, abducted scores of pastors and Christians and kept them in his mosque grounds in the heart of Maiduguri, capital of northeastern Borno state where the terrorists are largely based. In a notorious conversion ceremony, he asked them to convert or die and Yusuf personally beheaded pastor George Ojih who refused to renounce his Christian faith. The surviving Christians who recanted their faith after the public decapitation were to be rescued only when the Nigerian army captured the terrorists’ campus. Yusuf died in police custody shortly after his arrest.
Post-2009 Boko Haram under new head terrorist Abu Shekau has evolved into a lethal, blood thirsty and sophisticated jihadist group with a combination of media savvy and advanced weaponry. The START Report ranked it the second deadliest terror group in the world in 2012.
Shekau oversaw the southward expansion of Boko Haram’s theater of conflict and in 2011, four bombings occurred around the nation’s capital, Abuja. The police headquarters building in June, All Christian Fellowship church in July, the United Nation’s building in August and St Theresa’s Catholic Church in December. That Christmas Day suicide bombing had the highest casualty in the capital area -44 lives – before the April 14, 2014 bus station attack that claimed double that figure.
Boko Haram and it’s offshoot Ansaru have also been linked to several kidnappings for ransom of westerners in Northern Nigeria and Cameroun. Rescue attempts by the army resulted in executions of hostages from Italy, UK, Germany amongst others.
However it is the abduction of 276 school girls that same week that has focused global attention on Boko Haram and it’s unknown history of gender-based violence.
While the world watched in helpless horror the hundreds missing on Malaysian flight 370 followed by the South Korean ferry disaster, the Boko Haram is a new low of man’s inhumanity to woman, or more appropriately, girl child, that boggles the mind.
Sadly, this was not completely unforeseen. A September 2013 fact-finding mission I conducted determined that Boko Haram had began specifically targeting females and school children.
Earlier, we had encountered a lady, Mrs Shettima, whose husband was killed in front of her kids for refusing to convert to Islam. Irritated by her crying daughters, the terrorists abducted them. They were aged seven and nine at the time of the 2012 incident.
Far from being an isolated incident, it wasn’t until our unscheduled rescue of a fleeing female Boko Haram slave bride that the systematic pattern of female targeting became evident.
In Feb 2012, we visited an IDP camp for Christians who had fled coordinated house-to-house killings in northeastern Yobe state. Their homes were marked with graffiti and at night terrorists would come in and kill only the men. This was Boko Haram’s strategy for gendercide and religicide.
With the massive flight of men, it was only a matter of time for the ever resilient terrorists to devise a strategy that encompasses women. Gender-based violence against men has been substituted for GBV against women now that the wells have run dry.
How about schools? Why school kids? Boko Haram is famously anti-western education. Pakistan and Nigeria accounted for more terror attacks on schools than the rest of the world combined in 2012.
While those attacks were mostly on empty school buildings, there was the ocassional campus massacre like the Mubi polytechnic attack of October 1, 2012. Students were asked their names and religion, asked to recite a quranic verse and when they failed, were killed.
By 2014, Boko Haram attacked a middle school and butchered 59 boys in a horrific massacre that set a new moral, age and terror low for the jihadists. Survivors narrated how their genitals were methodically checked for pubic hair growth to determine their maturity for slaughter.
The conclusion of our study is that with the shuttering of many churches in the northeast, the mass displacement of mostly religious and ethnic minorities either as IDPs within Nigeria or refugees in neighboring countries, Boko Haram needs other soft targets.
In Yobe state, from a high of over 1000 churches, barely 80 pastors now remain according to a pastor from there we interviewed – over 95% attrition – percentages higher than the decimation of Christians. The Buni Yadi middle school massacre in February 2014 was in Yobe state. It was also the first time children that young were killed on such a scale.
During that attack, the attackers warned female students to leave school and get married. They were of “marriageable” age.
A Chibok victim we spoke to had his house bombed by the terrorists. 15 members of his family were amongst the abducted girls. His niece who escaped the Boko Haram camp by crawling under a briar fence that badly scarred her back quotes her captors, “school is bad.” They promised to “share” the girls out in marriage.
Ultimately the Chibok abductions highlight two main issues with regard to the state that are deeply unsettling. That the terrorists were able to con the principal to handover the girls to protect them and then take them like lambs to the slaughter, creates a credibility crisis for government directives on future evacuations.
This is aggravated by a crisis of confidence in the government’s response to the kidnappings. A military statement calling for “prayer” was decidedly telling on what the strategy is. There are no known lines of communication or negotiation with the terrorists and parents trooped through the forests in search of their children with no visible presence of the army in a notorious terrorist enclave.
Sadly, the terrorists now know what atrocities garner headlines and being resilient and media savvy, they will come for the girls.
Worse still, with inadequate record keeping, lack of a citizen data-base, absence of a human impact response and systemic dissimulation as state strategy, it will be difficult to tell if all the Chibok girls will ever be rescued or accounted for – whether 243 or 276. In the hearts of her parents, there is a child-shaped miracle that makes her more than a static.
Even if they are all found alive, there are deeper issues beneath the surface as my own interaction with female escapees from Boko Haram shows.
Speaking with a colleague about the terrorists’ rules of engagement that limits them from killing women, she eloquently stated, “there are somethings that you would do to a woman that are worse than death.”
The time for contingency planning is now.