News is continuing to pour out of Nigeria regarding the abduction of roughly 230 girls from the Chibok government school in Borno State. Since the story first broke over a week ago, reports on the number of girls taken have varied from 77 to 130 students. While the Nigerian government and military have at various times claimed credit for rescuing a number of the girls, the school administrators and parents are adamant that the recovered girls escaped on their own. This has called into question the effectiveness of the Nigerian military in securing the Northeast region of the country against the growing threat of Islamist extremism. The latest reports by news outlets like the BBC and CNN claim that roughly 187 girls are still missing.
The culprit behind these abductions in assumed to be the Islamist group Boko Haram (watch this 60 second BBC special), which has targeted Western educational establishments in the past. The name Boko Haram in Hausa translates roughly to “Western education is forbidden.” The group is dedicated to establishing Islamic law in Nigeria and fights to rid the Nigerian people of Western influences, which begins with abolishing the Western education system.
In an online video posted by Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, he exclaimed: “Everyone that calls himself a Muslim must stop obeying the constitution, must abandon democracy, must stay away from Western Education.” While in the video Shekau claims that Boko Haram was responsible for the Abuja car bombing which killed at least 75 people and left nearly 150 wounded, he said nothing about the abducted girls.
The abducted girls were taken from their school dormitories late in the night and loaded onto trucks. A number of girls made their escape by jumping from the trucks and hiding in the cover of darkness. However, those still in captivity are now believed to be trekking on foot through the Sambisa Forest in Borno State, which is a known hiding place for Boko Haram fighters. A number of locals in the area claim they saw the girls unloaded from the truck and forced into the dense forest.
Confidence in the military and in the government is eroding as desperate parents wait for any news about their abducted children. As J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center explains, “The failure of the government to even get a clear count further reinforces a perception of systemic governmental failure that plays into the narrative not only of Boko Haram, but also other dissident groups opposing Nigeria’s constitutional order.” This analysis is supported by the former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria, John Campbell (2004-2007), who said that these kidnappings show that Boko Haram’s strength “appears to be increasing. The government’s ability to provide security to its citizens appears to be decreasing.”
While the growing strength of Boko Haram is worrisome to say the least, it is important to note that Nigeria is not a predominately Muslim state. The country is actually split almost equally on a North-South divide between Muslims and Christians. That’s what makes this massive abduction so interesting. Boko Haram blatantly opposes the education of girls and has kidnapped a number of girls in the past and targeted schools…but never on this scale. As Oren Dorell for the USA TODAY writes, “…the massive kidnapping by militants who want to create an Islamic state in this oil-rich country that is half Christian and half Muslim is unprecedented.”
As this story continues to unfold it will be important to see to what degree the Nigerian government is able to regain control of Boko Haram-controlled areas. Looking to the region, we already have an example of what it means to have a powerful Muslim North in control of a weaker Christian South–this is the century-long story of Sudan. It would be devastating to say the least to see Nigeria repeat Sudan’s long and bloody history.