Boko Haram and the little girl whose name we will never know

Azad Essa comments on the escalating violence in Nigeria in the light of the recent massacre by the group carrying forward the message of Boko Haram. 

Little is known about the girl, except that she was no more than 10-years old.

With a hijab wrapped around her head, explosives strapped to her tiny frame, she walked into a market in the town of Maiduguri, in northeastern Nigeria on Saturday. When the time bomb was detonated remotely, at least 19 people were killed. The little girl’s body was blown into two halves. A pretty little girl, a hospital official said.

Her torn limbs, and defeated shadow is the very embodiment of an unfathomable war on human life in this region of Nigeria. Boko Haram, loosely translated as ‘’western education is a sin’’ continues to wage a devastating war against the Nigerian state.

It has been six years since the current insurgency began, and the three hardest-hit states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa are now easily among the most dangerous places on Earth.

The attack in Maiduguri, as pitiless as it may have been, comes days after the group ended an outrageous six-day assault on a series of villages around the fishing town of Baga, close to the border with Chad.

Amnesty International described it as the most brutal operation conducted by the group ever. It certainly is the most devastating incursion in Nigerian history.

For six days, the fighters raided up to 16 human settlements in the area, rounding up victims, executing them indiscriminately. Homes were burnt to the ground; 20,000 families uprooted and anything between 500 to 2000 people were butchered.

Here, even in death, human life is barely given the most basic dignity of an accurate statistic. No one seems to know how many were really killed.

One fisherman, Yanaye Greme said he “kept stepping on bodies” until he reached a neighbouring village, five km away. When he reached, he found the village had been razed to the ground, deserted.

To the outside world, including many Nigerians in the country’s south, Boko Haram are nothing more than a band of militant Islamist caricatures, steeped in bigotry and drunk in their so-called desire for nation-wide Sharia.

To others, the group is just one monster in a valley of thuggery.

What is certain is that while the group might have once held ambitions to become an alternative apparatus to an absent state administration in the northeast, it has long ceased to be anything but a mockery to human life.

To turn a little girl into a human bomb, a ‘suicide bomber’ as she will be erroneously described, signals a new level of depravity. There is no way the little girl understood what had been decided for her.

And while the group’s record is devastating to say the least, it is the Nigerian government and its military’s equally shocking record in the region that makes prospects of a solution in the immediate future almost untenable.

In August 2014, Amnesty International researchers gathered video of suspected Boko Haram fighters or associates being beaten in public, dumped in trucks, only to be found later on the side of the road with bullets in the head and chest. Other footage showed men’s throats being slit and dumped into mass graves outside villages. “This shocking new evidence is further proof of the appalling crimes being committed with abandon by all sides in the conflict,” Amnesty said. These findings followed a report by Human Rights Watch in 2013, which described the military as “engaged more in destruction than protection”.

Boko Haram, reached notoriety for its kidnapping of more than 200 girls from the town of Chibok in April 2014. While the abductions prompted outrage worldwide, few knew that the Nigerian military were already involved in similar methods as a tactic in its war against the group. Those seen to have association with the group, including women and children, were being routinely held, for weeks, or, months on end. For the world Chibok was despicable, for Boko Haram, it was just another part of their war.

Nigeria’s military, for its part, is no stranger to heavy-handed tactics; it has a long history of repression and subjugation. Its second experiment with democracy is barely 16 years old. Naturally, its operations in the northeast rely on heavy-handed tactics, often involving state-sponsored militia that only furthers hostility and deepens impunity.

With media not allowed to travel to much of the affected region, and communication blackouts still existing, the army has operated with little accountability.

To be clear, before Boko Haram drove into Baga last week, their reign of terror had cost at least 13,000 lives. The mismanagement of the crisis has assisted in the uprooting of more than 800,000 people from their homes, forcing them to further into the margins.

This is an election year in Nigeria. And the stakes are high. There is some talk of President Goodluck Jonathan facing stiff competition when the polls are held in February. Under such duress, elections are often meaningless events in the project of democracy; it is simply difficult to understand how elections involving big-men chasing power-politics involving oil, rising dissent in the Niger Delta and international interference will help improve the value of life in the northeast.

For instance, on 30 December 2014, just hours before a landmark vote at the UN Security Council, both Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli PM and John Kerry, US Secretary of State, called Goodluck Jonathan and urged him not to support Palestine in their bid for a state. Nigeria was widely expected to support the bid, but the late call convinced them otherwise.

With just two months before a crucial election, and with Nigeria vying hard for a permanent spot on the Security Council, who knows what promises were made to him.

All of which doesn’t matter. For these convoluted knots surely cannot be hidden forever.

Except the story of the little girl. Whose name we are never likely to learn.


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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