Responding to the moral crisis in Chibok and expecting the unexpected

Sierra Leone
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Last month, in Chibok, Boko Haram abducted nearly 300 school girls. In this post, Zoe Marks argues that, in Nigeria and beyond, we are failing to tackle the moral crisis this act has created. Zoe Marks is a Chancellor’s Fellow and Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh. This post also appears on the University of Edinburgh’s Global Justice blog.

What is a war on terrorism if not the rescue of 276 hostages? Prisoners, forced wives, sex slaves, chattel for market, domestic servants, human trafficking victims – aspiring, diligent, brave young girls.

We are facing an urgent moral crisis and fumbling. More than 20 days have passed since over 300 schoolgirls were corralled onto lorries in the middle of the night, captured by men claiming to be soldiers there to protect them. For three weeks, the Nigerian government has punted, Western governments have stood on the sidelines, and regional allies and the African Union have not even shown up to the pitch. Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan did not call his first strategy meeting until last Saturday (4 May). His military advisory committee was convened only yesterday for the first time (6 May).

When abducted on 14 April, the students were already far from home. They had travelled to Chibok Government Girls Secondary School despite school closures throughout Borno State, not to make a political statement, but simply to sit the same high school certificate exams being taken by their peers across West Africa.

Boko Haram, the al Qaeda-aligned insurgency that has destabilized the region, only claimed responsibility for the kidnapping on Monday (5 May). They released an hour-long video of masked men standing heavily armed and silent while their leader read a lengthy harangue. The girls were nowhere to be seen. He parroted back as threats what the news media has been recycling as fact, raising more questions than answers.

Did reports of child bride sales create a storyline – and an international audience – that was seized on by terrorist speechwriters? Now, Boko Haram is threatening to sell the girls. How many have already been sold? Now, their leader is vowing to make them forced brides. How many have already been taken as ‘brides’ by the militants? Now, eight more girls have been taken. How much longer do we have to wait for information, not speculation?

Tragically, none of this should be wholly unexpected.

Crucially, our hands are not tied.

Rebel group abduction of girls

Almost every rebel group in Africa in the past quarter-century has captured young women and girls, often alongside boys and young men who are captured as fighters. Just as women and girls provide an enormous amount of domestic labor in peacetime households, so too do they provide essential functions for rebel survival. They prepare and cook food. They clean and launder; collect water and firewood. They are routinely used for intelligence gathering, conducting re-supply missions, carrying supplies back to base camps, and of course, fighting. Boko Haram has already been using women and girls for many of these tasks.

In addition to their crucial military and logistical roles, women and girls fulfill a heartbreaking social role. Most militant fighters are young men. Although they may buy into their group’s ideology and hierarchy, it remains incredibly difficult to keep them in the bush, living a life of violence and insecurity without access to sex, women, and the social trappings of manhood. As a result, the world over, where you have military activity, you also have a shadow sphere of coercive sexual relations and sex economies under duress. Where you have civil war – in which fighters can easily defect home – you often have military domestic spheres with wives and girlfriends on rear bases.

The Revolutionary United Front terrorized Sierra Leone for over a decade and had operations dedicated to capturing ‘fine girls’. The Lord’s Resistance Army has abducted ‘wives’ for its commanders in raids that have spanned four countries in Central Africa for 37 years. If Boko Haram is anything like these long-lasting rebel groups, then they will capture girls and young women in order to retrench their camps in Sambisa Forest. Forced domestic labour, forced operational (wo)manpower, and forced marriage or rape are the building blocks of low-budget rural insurgency. These many violent precedents demand decisive action.

What we can do

The US and the UK are in the midst of sending special teams of military and intelligence experts to support the Nigerian response. They will have to grapple with three things that rebel groups rely on to hold women and girls captive. The first is territorial control. On the run, it is nearly impossible to maintain a militarized domestic sphere. The second is a militarily secure base camp hidden from aerial view. Keeping people from coming and going freely prevents civilian escape and counter-insurgent infiltration. The third is access to a resource base, local supply lines, or civilian support. Boko Haram’s recent attacks around Maiduguri have targeted logistical supplies, food, and livestock. If they begin selling girls, they will have an additional revenue stream.

Before an effective military or hostage-response solution can be activated, razor-sharp intelligence is needed on these enabling factors. While this should include US drone and satellite surveillance, it will also require access to local information networks currently closed to the Nigerian government. The population in Borno State is trapped between Boko Haram’s terror and intimidation, and the state military’s indiscriminate violent retaliation. Secure and anonymous channels for reporting on the group’s activity need to be established, alongside legal justice, and the protection of human rights.

In addition to locating the missing students and assessing the military situation where they are being held, any potential buyers market for girls in the Nigeria, Cameroun, Chad region must be shut down through a joint effort by all three governments. Public information campaigns should be led by their respective ministries. Border areas are often outside the reach of state institutions, but are still rife with informal trade and communication networks that can, and must, be mobilized in a tri-nation ‘AMBER Alert’.

Finally, the political brinksmanship needs to stop. In the leadership and information vacuum, conspiracy theories and blame-casting have undermined civil society action and set the Nigerian social media landscape ablaze. Domestic leadership is in tatters, as President Jonathan seems bent on leveraging the situation for military support, while the First Lady allegedly had the women’s protest leader arrested. Meanwhile, regional governments remain silent, and while Britain and the US scramble to figure out what it means to ‘do everything’ in their power (meanwhile, 150 US Special Forces are in Uganda looking for LRA leader Joseph Kony).

A platform for action and moral duty

It is tempting to treat the Chibok abduction as either a shocking one-off crisis, or as just another AfricanRebelGroupAttacksNamelessVillage headline, and respond accordingly. But, it is neither. It is not just another headline because the scale of abduction is virtually unprecedented. It is not a one-off because it is part of a system of anti-female oppression, rural marginalization, and insecure poverty that a whole range of international laws and institutions has been designed to overcome.

Unanimously approved, UN Security Council Resolution 1325, along with six follow-on resolutions, has, since 2000, called for greater attention to women and girls’ needs in armed conflict – including greater participation in military and political processes, and protection from gendered violence. International tribunals have convicted scores of commanders for war crimes of rape, sexual violence, and forced marriage. High-profile campaigns to end violence against women have been spearheaded by advocate-celebrities, like Angelina Jolie and Eve Ensler. All this against the backdrop of the Millennium Development Goals, which catalyzed a generation with promises of universal primary education, healthcare, and equality for women and girls.

After all this foundation-building and precedent-setting, why do our political leaders and global institutions sit idle and silent for weeks on end when we have the chance to prevent or curtail the perpetration of war crimes, instead of being left with tokenistic convictions after the dust settles?

This shouldn’t be Sparta. 300 girls have been left to save themselves. Their own families and neighbours have had to lead the search for them.

We cannot construct a global security apparatus that does not mobilize when hundreds of terrorist-targeted lives can, for once, be saved. We cannot accept a global security apparatus that has the moral agility to sweep thousands of square miles of ocean currents in search of a little black box, but not the moral commitment to search a few dozen miles of Nigerian countryside in search of hundreds of little black girls.

3 thoughts on “Responding to the moral crisis in Chibok and expecting the unexpected

  1. I broadly agree with this piece, and I find the situation as frustrating as the author. I would add two points:

    Firstly, Nigeria enjoys regional economic and military hegemony, and along with South Africa and Egypt is the most powerful nation on the continent. Its feeble efforts at putting down this insurgency has been a black eye on the country’s reputation. I would speculate that were the British or Americans to offer to send in special forces for a rescue operation and to kill or capture the perpetrators, the Nigerian government would be loathe to see themselves as needing blatant military assistance from Western nations for an internal problem. I would further speculate that such special forces were offered, and that Abuja told them they would take advisors and intelligence assistance only (which has already been in place in the country). As an anecdote to support that attitude, when the Westgate massacre was underway in Nairobi, America, British and Israeli personnel were already on the ground. When they suggested that the Kenyan security apparatus was tackling the crisis the wrong way, the “wazungus” were told to mind their own business – Kenya was capable enough to deal with it (which, of course, they were not).

    Second, the current US administration’s counter-terrorism policy has focused around target capture and assassination of global jihadists. That has mission-creeped into targeting Islamists with goals that are largely parochial. Boko Haram is a group that seeks controling Nigeria in the name of Islam – its connections to Al Qaeda are unproven and the subject of controversy. While I agree with the author and would like to see agressive action, I can guarantee that someone in the room in Washington or London is warning against such broad, public-view action as a way to possibly push this group (already in a dangerous neighborhood with AQIM, MOJWA and other militant Islamists highly active) towards a more global agenda that would increase the danger to their respective national interests.

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