Beyond 'Rebels' and 'Terrorists': On the Chibok Girls and Post 9/11 Militarism

By Siphokazi Magadla · 3 Nov 2014

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Picture: A picture of one of the Chibok girls, Dorcas Yakubu, taken a day before she was kidnapped courtesy/Chika Oduah Black History 360
Picture: A picture of one of the Chibok girls, Dorcas Yakubu, taken a day before she was kidnapped courtesy/Chika Oduah Black History 360

“What a stupid idea to announce a ceasefire with Boko Haram, who came up with that? Is it that these people don’t think? ...They are eager to announce good news. Elections are coming fast. Announce good news and then make a fool of yourself. Haba. The most stupid part was suggesting a day for the release of the girls.”

This is how a conversation between Ifemelu and Ceiling goes, two characters in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, Americannah, who also happen to have a real-time blog. Ifemelu and Ceiling are reacting to recent news that the Nigerian government is close to securing the release of 219 schoolgirls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram in Chibok, seven months ago on April 14, 2014. Mike Omeri, coordinator of Nigeria’s National Information Centre, told The Guardian newspaper on October 19, that the government was “inching closer to securing the release of the girls”, who are reportedly held in neighbouring Cameroon.

Yet a week ago, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that another 30 girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram on the October 23. (HRW) estimates that Boko Haram has killed 2,053 civilians in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe states to date this year.

Much has been said about the snail pace with which Goodluck Jonathan’s government responded to the kidnap of the girls in Chibok and the overall lack of strategy in their engagement with Boko Haram, which has been launching military attacks in north-eastern Nigeria since 2009. The scepticism that the government has suddenly made “concessions” with Boko Haram is appropriately met with cynicism, especially as these “developments” happen close to a likely announcement by Jonathan that he will be running for re-election in 2015. While Boko Haram has not commented on the supposed truce between itself and the Nigerian government, new details from girls who have managed to escape capture have confirmed the worst of our fears about the kind of treatment they have been subjected to over these months: forced marriage, rape and torture are among the few.

In the post-Cold War and post 9/11 eras, it has long been clear that armed non-state actors target civilians and public infrastructure in non-combatant areas that now form part of the “battleground” en route to state capture. Boko Haram has made it clear that it seeks to capture the Nigerian state.

While in the post-Cold War era a group like Boko Haram may have been labelled “rebels”, similar to those seen in the wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo or Liberia/Sierra Leone, in the post-9/11 era, such a group is subsumed under the label of “terrorist”.

Since 2012, Boko Haram has been classified as a terrorist organisation under the Nigerian Terrorism Prevention Act of 2011. During the group’s initial founding in 2002, it was alleged to be connected to the Taliban and was subsequently given the name of “Nigerian Taliban”, although no actual links between itself and the Taliban in Afghanistan were proven. In later years, it has been linked to Al-Qaeda and alleged to be getting funding from groups in Saudi-Arabia and the United Kingdom.

These categories of “rebel” versus “terrorist” have material consequences for how states react to these armed non-state actors. “Terrorist” reduces groups like Boko Haram and indeed, Al Shabaab in Somalia, to mere religious fundamentalists without political ideology. More than that, it presents the grievances of such a group in an outward frame, where details about Boko Haram members allegedly receiving training in Mali in a Tuareg rebel group and in Somalia under Al Shabaab are meant to alert us to the group’s greater commitment and location within a global jihadist network. It therefore becomes difficult to classify Nigeria as a country at war, or, at the very least, a highly militarised society, which makes the existence of Boko Haram possible based on particular local conditions. In this frame, Nigeria is presented as a geographically unfortunate victim of the presence of such a group as Boko Haram. 

Delivering the 2014 Robert Sobukwe Lecture, Pumla Dineo Gqola argued that the danger of reducing Boko Haram to “their fundamentalist Muslim identity” is that we “turn away from the kinds of slaughter Africans subject one another to. We deal with them one at a time, imagining we can bring our girls home without facing the reality of what Boko Haram is, of how and why it exists.”

Daniel Agbiboa and Benjamin Maiangwa in their paper, “Nigeria united in grief; divided in response: religious terrorism, Boko Haram, and the dynamics of state response”, published in the African Journal on Conflict Resolution (2014), point to the brutality with which the government’s special Joint Military Task Force (JTF), composed of 8 000 soldiers, has approached its fight against Boko Haram. The authors point out the JTF has been accused of “killing innocent people in the name of countering terrorism in northern Nigeria”. This includes soldiers setting “fire to houses, shops, and cars, randomly arresting men from the neighbourhood, and in some cases executing them in front of their shops or houses”. They conclude that these violent attacks by Boko Haram and what some authors have called the “Government Haram” evidenced by the “excessive use of force by the JTF and inter-communal violence in northern Nigeria is creating a deadly cocktail that puts populations at heightened risk of crimes against humanity in Nigeria”.

In July it was reported that 11 of the parents of the Chibok girls have died. Some died due to heart failure, high blood pressure and other stress related illnesses due to the despair of losing their children. October was the six-month anniversary of the abduction of the girls. So many months later, the town of Chibok has been cut from the rest of the country, flights have been halted and the roads are stained with burnt vehicles. Reports of further kidnappings more recently in Yobe tell us that Boko Haram is determined to gain control of more areas. In these cases it is easy to conclude that the global attention on the abducted girls has yielded no results.

The real danger, however, will be for the international community to stop asking questions about the rescue of these girls. Boko Haram has demonstrated the limited vocabulary with which to understand its claims. They seemingly will not be disappearing, as their forms of attack are getting even more sophisticated to alert us to the reality that attacks will go beyond those in the north-east of Nigeria. We are challenged to do the difficult work of understanding the intricate local dimensions that lead to the emergence of such groups. In doing so, we may need to first locate Boko Haram within larger questions of militarism beyond the narrow language of the war on terror.

The benefit of the political posturing that accompanies the national elections of 2015 in Nigeria is that it will force an inward looking conversation about the presence of Boko Haram. Such as why and how it was possible that for the organisation to successfully carry out its largest ever abduction in April by using the bodies of young girls as weapons of war. It is up to us, Africans and the international community, to pay attention to these conversations so as to improve our solidarity efforts towards the families and communities of the young girls whose lives have been sacrificed for political ends.

Magadla is a lecturer with the Political and International Studies department at Rhodes University, Grahamstown.

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