The international reaction to Nigerian militant group Boko Haram’s abduction of nearly 300 schoolgirls has taken a while to gather steam, but the issue is finally getting the attention it deserves — and causing the worry it should. This is not the first time the militant group has targeted students; in February it burnt down a school, leaving 29 boys dead, and last September it killed more than 40 at an agricultural college. It is, in fact, a tactic it has utilised since it was founded by Mohammed Yusuf in 2002, and one his successor Abubakar Shekau has made clear he intends to continue using. There is a specific logic to it beyond garnering the international attention Shekau wants, tied to religious and economic fault lines within Nigeria. That, along with the group’s ties to al-Qaeda and the danger of its activities spilling over Nigeria’s borders and destabilising central and west Africa, is why the international focus is overdue.
Nigeria may be oil-rich, but the divide between the Christian south and the Muslim north ensures that the petrodollars benefit the former — where much of the oil is found — far more than it does the latter. As a consequence, essential government services such as health and education are severely lacking in the north; while government schools do exist, they require tuition that much of the population cannot afford.
This pushes children into madrassas which are free — but the expansion of the Sahara desert means the farms that used to sustain madrassa instructors and students are no longer tenable. Students consequently end up in city slums where they are easy targets for Boko Haram recruitment and radicalisation — particularly given the resentment at a government education system that excludes them, fuelling the attacks on those that study in it.
It ties neatly into Boko Haram’s ideology of sweeping western influence from the country — represented by government schools — and purifying Nigeria’s Islamic culture. As an added benefit, it destabilises and fragments civil society, creating the chaotic conditions in which the group can cement its influence. And the group’s links to al-Qaeda mean that its ideology and activities are not bound by Nigeria’s borders.
Boko Haram fighters have turned up in Somalia, and Omar Farouk Adulmutallab, who tried to detonate an explosive device in an airplane landing in Detroit in 2009, came from Nigeria as well. The group also bombed the UN regional headquarters in Abuja in 2011 — an attack that, according to experts, showed signs of collaboration with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magheb.
In the wake of the latest kidnapping, top Muslim scholars from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation have come together to publicly denounce Boko Haram. Crucial as this repudiation is, there must also be a concerted international effort to aid the Nigerian government in combating the militant group. Britain, for instance, is offering counter-terrorism experts, special forces advisers and communications equipment.
The US, China and France have also offered to help; they must deliver on the promise. And the aid must look beyond security assistance to the economic and structural issues in Nigeria that have enabled Boko Haram. This is a rare instance — in the light of discord over humanitarian crises in West Asia and elsewhere in the recent past — where geostrategic interests are not dividing the international community. It must take advantage of it.