Nigeria’s Abducted Girls Are the Latest Victims of the Country’s Religious Divide
Poverty plagues northern Nigeria’s Muslims, and life is comparatively better in the heavily Christian South—but reforms are needed to save the whole country’s future
Reaction to the kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls in northern Nigeria in mid-April is growing more intense by the day. Last week Michelle Obama weighed in, condemning the kidnappers in the terrorist group known as Boko Haram (which translates roughly as “Western education is forbidden”) as an “outrage.”
“This unconscionable act was committed by a terrorist group determined to keep these girls from getting an education—grown men attempting to snuff out the aspirations of young girls,” she said.
The group’s activities have grown more extreme, and more brazen, ever since 2009, when it’s operations spread from its base in the northeast of the country further south to the capital, Abuja.
Two weeks ago, it attacked a boarding school in northern Nigeria and slaughtered more than 50 young men between the ages of 16 and 18. It let the girls go free but ordered them to get married. Three weeks ago, fighters from Boko Haram set off suicide bombs at a bus terminal in the capital and attacked several major buildings.
While these attacks are indeed, as Obama said, outrageous, they are also part of a much larger, more problematic dynamic that continues to plague not just Nigeria but the whole swath of countries that make up the arid desert known as the Sahel. A stark north-south divide exists there between the peoples of the north, often nomads and pastoralists with an Islamic heritage, and the farmers, largely Christians, in the south.
“There is a pervasive sense of marginalization by a government in Abuja that is perceived to be predominately southern and predominantly Christian,” said John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria and security expert on the region, during a conference call with reporters organized by the Council on Foreign Relations, where he is a senior fellow.
“An elephant in the living room is just how much popular support Boko Haram actually enjoys,” said Campbell. “Government spokesmen fairly consistently say that it has no popular support, that, in fact, it operates basically through violence and intimidation. And that, of course, I think is true. On the other hand, you have Boko Haram activity since 2009. It’s been escalating, and the government seems to be very far away from being able to bring it under control.”
Development indices routinely show a dramatic and worrying disparity in health outcomes across the Sahel, the communities north of the 10th parallel, which is the imaginary line where Islam and Christianity collide in much of Africa.
“The level of poverty and immiseration in the north is substantially greater in every [index] than in the south,” said Johnny Carson, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs and a senior adviser at the U.S. Institute of Peace, during the same conference call.
“The number of girls graduating from grammar school and high school is substantially lower in the north. The level of literacy among boys and girls—and men and women in the north—is substantially below that of the south. Access to clean water, health care—substantially greater in the south, substantially lower in the north. And youth unemployment—male youth unemployment in northern Nigeria is in excess of 50 percent,” Carson said.
I saw these trends firsthand during a trip to Niger, Nigeria’s neighbor to the west, in 2009. I spent time in several Tuareg communities there and discovered that across much of the north the government had either failed, or simply refused, to develop adequate access to potable water sources for thousands of Tuareg and their animals. Wells are left to run dry, money to dig fresh wells is withheld, and communities suffer. As a result, scores of animals have died, and people have been forced to abandon their ancestral lands. As in Nigeria, the government’s policies have bred resentment and, in some cases, violence.
None of this is to excuse Boko Haram’s activities, which, as with militia groups elsewhere in Africa, have combined a particular strain of religious fanaticism, in this case of an Islamic bent, with a penchant for seeing children as useful tools to achieve larger political aims. We see this in Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, of course, but also in previous conflicts, from Liberia and Sierra Leone to the ongoing wars in Congo, Sudan, and the Central African Republic. There’s no excuse for that. And the indignant have every right to protest.
But any long-term solution in the Sahel is going to have to include a more inclusive development plan for those vast ungoverned areas where Boko Haram has taken root. Experts like Campbell believe that Boko Haram is able to operate with impunity in roughly one-third of the country—a staggering figure, given that Nigeria is Africa’s most populous and economically vibrant country and the engine of the continent’s growth in the short- to near-term future.
“The government’s response to the problem has been mono-dimensional,” said Carson. “It’s always been a security response to the problems. And that security response, regrettably, has been very, very heavy-handed and very brutal in many respects. Individuals in the north talk about a military that comes in and responds to the Boko Haram threat as being just as predatory and disrespectful of their civil liberties as Boko Haram has been.”
Real development spread equitably across the country would go a long way toward deflating the grievances that, however indirectly, fuel Boko Haram. That will require the kind of top-down change that doesn’t exist in Nigeria today….