The grand larceny of Chibok’s girls began under the cover of darkness, and there it has remained.
Three weeks ago, unknown insurgents, now widely linked to Boko Haram, a group active in Chibok’s surrounding Borno state, abducted dozens of schoolgirls, each reportedly preparing for their final exams. Of course, Boko Haram’s involvement is murky–its figurehead, Abubakar Shekau, has not claimed responsibility for his foot soldiers’ actions–but probable. Like the identity of their captors, the girls’ current location is unknown. Too-rare testimonies of exodus, such as that of Deborah Sanya, an eighteen year-old abductee, suggest the girls are located in the Sambisa Forest, the proximate site of multiple known Boko Haram training camps. Meanwhile, a grief-stricken “community leader” recently suggested that some girls, forcibly married to Boko Haram members, are now en route to either Cameroon or Chad, both of which closely border the group’s lightly forested territory.
Where Boko Haram’s violence are concerned, little is ever clear. Massive, brutal destruction is the only certainty of the group’s operations, and often of the government’s response as well. In the four years since Boko Haram’s violence has expanded, and the group’s eight years prior, thousands–perhaps tens of thousands–of civilians have died. The life of a civilian in northeast Nigeria is a constant gamble–in areas where Boko Haram is active, killing is a matter of when, and by whom. The anonymity of the disappeared is a common feature. Initially, the girls were one hundred; now, they are two hundred and thirty-four, perhaps more. For international observers, the numbers are immaterial: it’s a lot of girls, and very few names. Girls–women–like Deborah, whose suffering is known, are all too rare.
The parents of Chibok now speak in their daughters’ stead. The protests are mounting: against Boko Haram, but also against Nigeria’s government, for its bumbling response; international media, for its lagging coverage; and, international governments, for standing by. As during most crises, the response of President Goodluck Jonathan’s federal administration has been duplicitous at best. Two days after the initial abduction, Nigeria’s defense ministry claimed its troops in Borno state–its “joint task force” and their handy paramilitaries–had recovered the girls, then one hundred and twenty-nine, and both Nigerian and international media were quick to believe them. But the government’s deception quickly collapsed, and a half-hearted search-and-rescue has continued apace.
If international media has been slow to catch up, this is no longer the case. Unfortunately, no greater clarity has followed the abductions’ new global spotlight. As John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, observed last week, the basic facts of the crime are no clearer than they have been. Despite a multi-week swarm of local information-gathering, credible information about the girls’ location, or about their captors, is in short supply. Like any violent group, Boko Haram is an organization in name only–the culprits may be linked to Shekau, or they may not be. In a criminal sense, we know little about the captors’ motive. International media reports reference the group’s Hausa-language name–in English, it roughly translates to “Western education is a sin”–as an implicit clue; others, such as Nicholas Kristof, suggest the girls’ abduction is a human-trafficking event. Neither are certain: Boko Haram’s Islamist ideology is rarely a useful guide to their violence, and neither ransom nor illicit sales seem to fund the group’s operations at any scale.
Despite this information gap, international op-ed pages have now arrived at the What is to be done? stage of international coverage. As is often the case, recommendations follow protests by local groups and concerned members of the Nigerian diaspora, but scarcely align with these protests’ proposed actions. Some protestors suggest negotiations between the Nigerian government and the as-yet unknown captors; this proposal appears uncommon among Western op-eds. Instead, columnists like Nicholas Kristof recommend a more aggressive response. They lean on the blunt instrument of Nigerian military force, a reliable but often counterproductive instrument of counterterrorism. To assist the Nigerians’ efforts, Kristof suggests, intelligence-sharing–satellite imagery and ground-level information alike–should be frequent and unfettered. However, the recent surge of Nigerian military resources in Borno state, prompted in part by international outrage, likely does more to deepen the crisis than to resolve it. According to Amnesty International, Nigerian military violence killed more civilians in 2013 than did their insurgent adversaries.
The proposals of local protestors may be similarly misguided: one can imagine a scenario in which negotiation encourages more future abductions rather than fewer, whatever its immediate appeal. Given these two poles, each unattractive in their own right, I’m not confident that the solution to Chibok’s crisis is any clearer than our knowledge of its details.