Why is the ‘international community’ slow to react in this region
The Nigerian extremist rebel group Boko Haram massacred several hundred villagers in north east Nigeria last month. Unfortunately, this follows the unprecedented kidnap of over 300 schoolgirls on April 14 in the troubled north. Some managed to escape while being transported in trucks to Boko Haram hideouts inside the Sambisa forest reserve, in northern Nigeria’s Borno state. But over 220 still remain captives, and the kidnapping of women and girls continues unabated.
Despite his rhetoric, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has done next to nothing to check Boko Haram. His government has a lavish defence budget, but Nigerian soldiers in the north rebelled early this month, protesting that they lacked the weapons to fight the rebels.
A week after the kidnapping, a video was released, showing Boko Haram’s gloating leader Abubakr Shekau claiming that the victims were now converted to Islam and ‘married’ to Boko Haram members. They are, in fact, no more than sex slaves, and Shekau said he would sell them for as little as US$15 for anyone interested. More than six months after the kidnap, the Nigerian government has failed to recover a single victim.
‘Boko’ Haram’ means ‘Western education is forbidden’ in the local Hausa language. Its leader and his clerics see schools, and the education of females in particular, as a corrupting modern influence. Boko Haram, which terrorises northern Nigeria with massacres in towns, villages and schools, began kidnapping girls and women last year after the Nigerian authorities began detaining family members of known rebel commanders. “Since you are now holding our women, just wait and see what will happen to your own women,” Shekau declared ominously in 2012. Since the April 14 mass abduction, almost 100 women have been abducted by Boko Haram in the same region.
As much as the local people fear Boko Haram, they fear the heavy-handed Nigerian military, whose tactics have only won more recruits for the radicals. The army has little reliable intelligence and is clueless as to where the girls are being held. But this problem is not simply limited to Boko Haram. It is only the most disturbing manifestation so far of a deep-rooted cultural problem, that of child marriages. This is an effective way of preventing education for teenage girls since few schools are willing to accept students below 18 who are married. Girls make up two thirds of the10.5 mn Nigerian children who are not attending school. This problem isn’t limited to Nigeria, but let’s look at the situation in the poverty-stricken north where Boko Haram now rules the roost.
As Nigerian novelist Lola Shoneyin points out, Nigeria is a land of extremes. On the other hand, there’s visible wealth spawned by oil money. But this prosperity hasn’t been distributed nationwide. The north remains appallingly poor. Nigeria now has the highest GDP in Africa, above South Africa. But the World Bank lists Nigeria as one of Africa’s poorest countries in terms of its revenue per capita. Unemployment is very high among the under 35 population which forms 35% of the total.
According to UNESCO, Nigeria has the highest number of children not attending school on a per capita basis. Many of these children are from northern Nigeria. In the Zamfara state, which was governed for eight years by Ahmed Yerima, a hardline Muslim member of the All Nigeria People’s Party and a senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, only 5% of girls between age 5 and 16 are literate. Yerima replaced his fourth wife (a teenager) with a 13-year-old Egyptian girl at a ceremony held at the central mosque in Abuja, the Nigerian capital. Zamfara was the first state in Nigeria to reintroduce Sharia law. Women’s groups in Nigeria protested strongly against the marriage, but Yerima declared that he was bound by Islamic law, rather than secular laws of Nigeria. When it was clear that the then Attorney-General, Bello Adoke, was not going to prosecute, protest groups had no one to turn to, thus dealing a crippling blow to the campaign against child marriage.
Boko Haram is only an extremist extension of this mindset. But a number of those outspoken regarding this issue have been killed. Many northern politicians fear Boko Haram. While Nigeria needs to deal urgently with Boko Haram, the problem is child marriage exists widely outside of Nigeria. If we look at the problem worldwide,Niger, Chad, Mali, Bangladesh and Guinea have the highest rate of child marriages. All but Guinea are Muslim-majority countries. But not all Muslim majority countries are conservative or retrogressive where this pressing issue is concerned.
"Despite his rhetoric, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has done next to nothing to check Boko Haram"
For example, The Council of Islamic Ideology (CII). Pakistan’s most influential religious and constitutional body, has ruled that girls can be given in marriage from the moment they are born. In April, it ruled that banning child marriages was anti-Islamic. But Pakistan’s legislators have courageously stood up to this tide of religious conservatism. In Sindh, the provincial Assembly passed a law which makes it illegal for under eighteens of both sexes to marry. Sindh has the highest rate of child marriages for any Pakistani province. It has an ancient custom called swara which allows girls to be given in marriage as compensation for any crimes committed by their male family members.Many progressive Muslim countries have taken steps to curb traditional practices not in tune with the modern world. The Moroccan parliament outlawed an old law which allowed rapists to marry their victims after an underage rape victim committed suicide. But the world is an increasingly retrogressive place. While Muslim Morocco has acknowledged modern realities, majority-Buddhist, multi-religious Sri Lanka is proposing to introduce the very same law, taking us back to the dark ages.
The international media was slow to react to the April 14 atrocity. Now, interest is almost nil. Seventeen-year-old Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager and champion of Muslim girls’ education, shot by the Taleban in 2012, visited Nigeria in July and met some of those who escaped from captivity. The visit made no impact on the Nigerian leadership. Parents and relatives said that they faced arrest and intimidation by the Nigerian government whenever they held protests. Boko Haram will continue its mayhem while the Nigerian government refuses to admit that the country has a huge problem which won’t simply disappear.