The Folly Of History And The Twisted Irony Of A Single Tweet

As the world assuages its discomfort through virtually expressed outrage… Azad Essa contextualises the long and complex story of Nigeria’s kidnapped schoolgirls.

“The evil which men had attempted to exclude by confinement reappeared, to the horror of the public, in a fantastic guise” – Michel Foucault

There was little cause in the tweet. Michelle Obama’s much vaunted photo endorsing  the #BringOurGirlsHome campaign – a pained reference to the April 15 abduction of some 270 school girls by Boko Haram in northern Nigeria – spurred a wave of cerebral and celebrity outrage. News of the crime spread through the world rapidly, but few of the niggling details of the broader context travelled along.

As the story goes, Boko Haram – a ghastly militant group, guilty of hundreds of petty, and grievous crimes across north eastern Nigeria over the past five years – swooped down into the town of Chibok in a remote corner of the Borno State and looted a school of its female student population. The girls were packed like cattle onto the back of open trucks. Some of the girls are said to have jumped off the trucks, stumbling their way back into town. Meanwhile the vehicles entered the thick foliage of the jungles close to the Cameroonian border. And as many desperate parents and other villagers chased the kidnappers into the jungle that night, others were left reeling, and all were uncertain about the fate of their children.

A day later, the Nigerian military said they had rescued the girls. Parents insisted the custodian of Nigeria’s security – the military –  was lying. Two days later, the Nigerian military admitted their mistake. The girls were still in the jungle.

And then, an eerie silence descended. Shocked at the muted response of their government to the crisis, thousands of Nigerians took to the streets of the capital, Abuja, to express their dismay. On social media, the # BringOurGirlsHome tag began to trend nationally, and then internationally, where immaculately manicured nails framed placards in New York, Nairobi and Geneva calling for action.

Demonstrations and vigils were held in the name of the girls’ freedom. A chorus of condemnation directed at Boko Haram’s crime rang out.  Criticism of the inaction of the Nigerian government and its military was levelled. Frantic calls were made between congressmen in Washington D.C and politicians in the United Kingdom, as Western governments primed for action.  Two entire weeks had passed before President Goodluck Jonathan reassured his public that the government had prioritised rescuing the girls. Even then, his words rang hollow.

On May 18, the president of Nigeria was in Paris for a French-hosted summit to discuss how African countries might collectively curate their outrage towards the kidnapping and end the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigerian territory. Sitting in Paris, African countries bravely “declared war” on Boko Haram that day.

Meanwhile, on the periphery, a petition was started and before long, tens of thousands of signatures had been digitally inked in, calling for the release of the girls. At a picket in Los Angeles, children stood with their parents and demanded action. In Durban, South Africa, scholars demonstrated their solidarity by writing messages on their classroom blackboards: “Rescue our girls. Don’t harm our sisters. Our girls deserve to be free”. In Dakar, Senegal, 100 protesters dressed in red chanted: “Release our sisters! Release our daughters!”

Quite apart from the unfurling of global condemnation, a month and a half after the kidnapping, there was still no word of the girls or their whereabouts. On May 27, the Nigerian military claimed to know the girls’ location, but they were not telling. Whether the abductees had been bought, sold, raped or tortured, was left to the hysteria of our collective imagination.

And so, with few new details emerging, and little to keep people interested and entertained by the suffering of a distant land and people, the #BringBackOurGirls campaign on social media also waned. According to Google analytics, the party reached a peak on Friday May 9, the same week when Mrs Obama, Bradley Cooper and Sean Penn tweeted in solidarity with the global campaign. But by Monday, May 12, the farce unravelled in the miniscule attention span of the interwebs. Engagement took a nosedive. Few could remember the spectacle that had only just gripped millions of people.

By the end of May, President Jonathan declared “total war” on Boko Haram, promised to “protect democracy and national unity” and assured the nation he would “free our girls”.

His bold words aside, 45 days after the abduction and the president still had yet to make a trip to the north.


When Olusegun Obasanjo was voted into the presidency in 1999, it brought an end to a 16 year military dictatorship in Nigeria, ushering in what is known as the Fourth Republic. Democracy might have ended a tumultuous dictatorship, but the move didn’t succeed in unifying a country pummelled by four coups, rampant corruption and simmering ethnic and religious tensions. Each day since then has been a test of the country’s temperament, still battling the ghosts of a chequered past.

Like so many African countries where borders and statehood were unnaturally imposed by a colonial power, modern Nigeria is a conglomeration of ethnicities pushed within the logical confines of a nation-state. It’s not that war, conflict or petty squabbles between distinct linguistic, religious, even ethnic groups didn’t exist before the British occupied the territory in 1885. But the British consolidated the notion of ‘difference’ in its larger project of divide and rule, like they had done in their colonies in India, South Africa and other places. Here in West Africa, however,  the approach was different but just as masterful.

Historian Obara Ikime writes that Britain was well versed in “encouraging ethnic sentiment; it seized every available opportunity to spread the myth, that they [the various groups of people inhabiting a colonised land] are different.” While the British merged south and north under one administration in 1914, the local populations were kept separate, treated differently; their differences, their conflicts, were left to fester.

The British were received differently in different regions of the country. The south was more open to the visitors, their customs, their espoused religion and their way of speaking. Soon, this openness was twisted into a southern prejudice against the ‘conservative’, ‘backward’ Hausa in the north. In the north, the Christianity that came with colonialism was seen as a threat to hundreds of years of Islamic practise. Naturally, foreigners were resented, their ideals seen as a means to wield power. The British response was to implement uneven economic policies, which resulted in uneven development. The unequal distribution of wealth took on a regional and inevitably, an ethnic character.

When the lengthy process of decolonisation began, culminating in Nigeria’s independence in 1960, the newly installed administrators continued the work of their masters. The structures remained firmly in place. Over the past 54 years, the north and south have existed as two parallel entities; the south exemplified by growing infrastructure, higher levels wealth and the trappings of a bustling modernity. In contrast, the north was left to stew in pernicious poverty.

At best, the Nigerian state has been riddled with institutional weaknesses. At its worst, this state has remained utterly disingenuous in its attempts to meet the needs of its people, be it in the north or the south. The majority of Nigerians still live on less than a dollar a day but the disparity between north and south is indisputable. In 2013, the World Bank said poverty in the country remained concentrated in northern Nigeria. For instance, Lagos State in the south had a poverty rate of 22.9 percent compared to 77.5 percent in the Jigawa State in northern Nigeria. It is the same for half a dozen other northern states. Today, some estimates suggest that between 50 and 75 percent of the populations of young people (aged under 35 years) in the northern states live in poverty; many of them are unemployed, angry, dispossessed. Grievance with the federal government here, aren’t just tangible, they are by nature, incendiary.

To the ordinary man and woman in the northern states, the Nigerian government has never existed beyond cronyism, Godfatherism or a petty excuse for amassing personal power and wealth. Like many other post-colonial African states, a moral code has never been a mainstay of the Nigerian state; its role as guardian and servant to the people has never materialised.

Here, the Nigerian state, despite the promises, the roaring economic growth generated by oil revenues, has never moved beyond subjugator.


The story of Jama’at ahl al-sunna li-da’wa wa-l-qital or Boko Haram, as it is known to the rest of world, is a work in progress. On the surface, Boko Haram, roughly translated by most as “western or secular education is a sin”, is the Nigerian equivalent of every religious nut job group that has ever terrified you. They are vehemently opposed to all secular teachings and practices, and ruthless in implementing their own ideals.

As extremist groups go, Boko Haram is ghastly, but it is neither the first nor the only group terrorising the country. They are also, without question, only a product of an already terrifying social and political milieu in northern Nigeria.

It is hard to believe that after Boko Haram was formed in Maiduguri in 2002, the group spent some part of its initial years as a non-violent group preaching of the persistent failure of government to transform the lives of ordinary people in its part of the country. Boko Haram spoke of government corruption and unemployment and packaged itself as a movement of social change.

Though fervent criticism of western education became a popular rallying cry, their cause of social upliftment and their opposition to economic exclusion and rampant corruption within the federal and local governments became an inconsequential sideshow as far as the media were concerned..It didn’t help that their members were said to be a curious mixture of religious scholars and local thugs – well known, even connected to the political establishment.

In 2009, the violent death of its leader, Mohammed Yusuf, in police custody saw a reshuffling within the group and a renewed modus operandi, as factions battled to lead and to own the movement.

The violence intensified in 2010, with all symbols of state power – be it police stations, churches or secular educational institutions – bearing the brunt of their rage.  Cars laden with explosives drove into churches, schools were attacked indiscriminately and scholars were slaughtered. The violence in the far flung northern states increasingly intensified, while the group’s demands became ever more murky. From its roots as a group promoting social justice, Boko Haram had transformed into an unholy insurgency. The group now wanted Sharia law instated in all of Nigeria (it already exists in the criminal justice system in twelve northern states). The infighting and factionalism within the group also facilitated the emergence of criminal elements to emerge, and thrive. Seen through this prism, Boko Haram’s demands and horrific violence is spectacularly confusing.

As events spiralled out of control, in May 2013, the Nigerian government declared a state of emergency in three states. Mobile network signals were shut down, entire towns were under curfew and journalists were banned from travelling to certain areas, pushing the region into a black hole. Then, the army moved in. The communication blackout allowed the military to address Boko Haram with a feverish brutality. The group’s members and any individual even loosely associated with it simply ‘disappeared’. Large swathes of villages in the affected states were razed to the ground as the military, working along with local vigilante groups, ventured to cleanse the north of the scourge that posed a threat to Abuja, and a continued embarrassment to the country’s increasing clout.

But, like all locally driven insurgencies, the brutality did little to discourage membership, and the porous borders of Cameroon, Niger and Chad presented the fighters with places to hide out, rearm and consolidate. The attacks continued.

Since 2012, well before Boko Haram had become the civilised world’s latest bogeyman thanks to the displays of international outrage over the April 15 abduction of the school girls, the group had already attacked 300 other schools. Between 2010 and 2013, Boko Haram may have been responsible for the deaths of almost 3600 people. In 2014 alone, 1500 people have already been murdered. In February of 2014, members of Boko Haram slit the throats of more than three dozen young men in a school in Boni Yadi, in the Yobe State. They went on to burn down the boarding school. Some of the 11 to 18 year old boys from the school were burned to ash, the police commissioner said. The girls in the girls’ hostel were reportedly told to go home and get married.

Responding to that particular attack, security forces moved into the area in March and butchered detainees linked with the group. The human rights group Amnesty International said both sides were engaged in “unlawful violence … with devastating consequences for the human rights of those trapped in the middle”. Amnesty International also asked Nigeria to come clean and acknowledge the allegations of abuse levelled at the military. Nigeria has frequently denied any abuses have taken place.

There are yet other allegations, and problematic truths. It turns out that since 2011, the Nigerian army have been doing some kidnapping of its own. More than 100 women and children – related in some form or another to Boko Haram leaders have been detained by Nigerian military – some for months on end – as a tactic of negotiation with the group. Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram’s leader, is reported to have warned, in a series of video messages, that there would be repercussions – after his wife was captured and held for ten months. “Since you are now holding our women, just wait and see what will happen to your own women,” he said.

But that is not all there is to this story. It was revealed that the United States had advised the Nigerian government to reconsider its strong arm tactics in dealing with Boko Haram. In May 2013, the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, said the United States was “deeply concerned by credible allegations that Nigerian security forces are committing gross human rights violations, which, in turn, only escalate the violence and fuel extremism.” By implication, the United States knows that the Nigerian government was detaining ordinary civilians, including children of suspected Boko Haram members.

In all likelihood, Mrs. Obama’s sad, puppy-faced pout on the kidnapped girls’ behalf was briefed by someone with official information, who knew that participating in #BringOurGirlsHome would help illuminate a particular villainy. Women and children are the greatest victims of this insurgency. The UN estimates that 70% of all victims are women and children. The US knew that members of Boko Haram were party to a game the Nigerian military was already playing: the mediaeval tactic of holding innocent children and women hostage, as weapons of war. But these children were not deserving of any mention. Their kidnapping was not an affront on “girls’ education”. They were just the martyrs in the war against terror. Seen in this light, her participation was not just simplistic, as most critics have pointed out.  It was a complete sham.


Much of the criticism of Boko Haram has distilled a greater outrage towards the failure of the Nigerian government to protect its people and it was only this wave of public pressure and dissent through a mix of protests and the #BringOurgirlsHome campaign that brought the government to its feet. And yet, despite the ruckus, this government continues to slouch.  There has been little leadership or will power to resolve this crisis. One must wonder how this government might have responded, if at all, had there been no noise to accompany the crime. It is a story fraught with confusion, inaction, murder, indecision and continued dispossession, just as it has always been.

In our new column, ‘Drum Beat’ author and Al Jazeera journalist, Azad Essa distills the soundscape of an emerging new Africa.

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