100 Days of Violence, Rumors, and Loss
Since Boko Haram seized the girls of Chibok, Nigeria has racked up the world’s highest terrorism fatality rate -- and the country is beset by nasty conspiracy theories about who is to blame.
In the more than 100 days since the girls of Chibok were kidnapped, the world’s attention has moved on to other stories — but Nigeria’s situation has deteriorated at a dizzying pace. This year has been the most violent period in the five-year insurgency of the militant Islamist group known as Boko Haram. A report released this week by the risk consultancy Maplecroft found that Nigeria leads the world in terrorism fatality rates: On average, there were 24 deaths per incident out of 146 recorded through June. Adding to that list, Boko Haram killed dozens and forced some 15,000 people to flee last weekend as it took over the northern town of Damboa. And tragically, reports indicate that 11 parents of the Chibok girls have died since the kidnappings, some of them in attacks.
It seems each day comes with a new report of a similar incident.
But the violence, kidnappings, and death wrought by the group aren’t the only problems facing Africa’s most-populous nation: The perception among a growing number of Nigerians is that the government, led by President Goodluck Jonathan, is unable to handle Boko Haram. It has not been able to rescue Chibok’s lost girls, nor has it been able to prevent further attacks. This week, the government pledged to form a 2,800-person regional security force, along with Cameroon, Chad, and Niger, to get rid of Boko Haram — but cooperation has been mooted before, with little effect.
At stake in the government’s response is nothing less than the future of the country. "The geo-strategic consequences of this are the most critical," says James Hall, a military analyst and former defense attaché with the U.K. High Commission in Abuja. "The country’s long-term stability and viability is key. The question is, can the government manage it?"
The question has many Nigerians on edge. Tension is palpable, fed by conspiracy theories about who is ultimately responsible for the Chibok situation — and Boko Haram more broadly. "It’s difficult sometimes to think rationally about it," says blogger and student Zainab Usman, who has attended many events in Abuja as part of the "Bring Back Our Girls" campaign launched after the kidnappings. "It’s very difficult to feel positive."
Bring Back Our Girls, which went viral globally on the internet and drew people to the streets in Nigeria, still attracts supporters, Usman says, though perhaps not the numbers it once did. People gather, for instance, at Abuja’s Unity Fountain, wearing red and demanding that the government do more to find the kidnapped girls.
But in May, another group turned up unexpectedly. The members wore white t-shirts bearing the slogan "Return Our Girls Now," and they carried banners with pictures of the president on them. "It was very tense," Usman says. "They were very aggressive, saying that we should not be against the government. They shoved people and broke chairs and threatened us. It was only because we remained passive that there wasn’t worse violence."
Since then, the demonstrators in white have maintained a counter-protest at Unity Fountain. The group is small, but it isn’t alone in believing that too much criticism has been hurled at Jonathan’s administration: Government supporters say the Bring Back Our Girls campaign, and the consequent attention it has brought to Nigeria, are the work of opposition activists who are bent on removing the president before elections in February 2015. They point to protest leader Oby Ezekwesili, a former minister in the government of Olusegun Obansanjo. A one-time political mentor of Jonathan’s, Obansanjo publicly and harshly criticized his former protégé last year, saying Jonathan was being "overwhelmed" by Boko Haram.
For their part, supporters of Bring Back Our Girls say the group in white is being paid by the government. And Ezekwesili recently took to the BBC’s "HARDtalk" to deny she has any affiliation with the opposition to Jonathan.
At the heart of the two sides’ dispute is the matter of what, exactly, Jonathan’s government has done since the kidnappings occurred. It has been reported that, at first, the president refused to believe the girls had actually been kidnapped. The first lady of Nigeria, Patience Jonathan, was even accused of ordering the arrest of two activists from Chibok for maligning the presidency. (She later denied that she had done so.)
In the weeks since, the president has endeavored to show that his government is indeed working to bring the girls home — even without offering tangible proof of this being the case. Jonathan hired a prestigious public relations firm from the United States to improve Nigeria’s image. And he wrote in a June 26 op-ed in the Washington Post that his government was engaged in "continuing efforts" to find the girls, in which "security and intelligence services have spared no resources." He provided no specific details about these efforts but insisted, "My silence as we work to accomplish the task at hand is being misused by partisan critics to suggest inaction or even weakness."
Government advisers are also quick to deny accusations that the government has done nothing. "Those saying so do not know the real truth," Fatima Akilu, an assistant to the country’s national security advisor, told an audience at London’s Frontline Club in June.
Reporters in the northern city of Maiduguri say that the Nigerian army has engaged the militants but not been able to make significant progress. The United States and United Kingdom are providing support as well, but there is no clear evidence yet of whether their efforts are making a difference.
Some government supporters even see a broad conspiracy at work: It isn’t just Bring Back Our Girls that’s a problem — Boko Haram and the Chibok incident are all a part of a plot to discredit Jonathan ahead of February’s polls. Jonathan overturned a longstanding, though unwritten, political deal that saw the presidency rotating between Nigeria’s north and south after two presidential terms. (A southern Christian, Jonathan was the vice president while northern Muslim Umaru Yar’Adua was in the president’s office. When Yar’Adua died in 2010, Jonathan took over, and he then ran to hold onto the presidency the following year.) Many in the south are sympathetic to at least some parts of the view espoused by Jonathan allies who see Boko Haram and everything that comes of it as an attempt to destroy their president — and ultimately return power to the north.
Violence has helped to breed further rumors and allegations. On Wednesday, two bombs went off in the northern city of Kaduna, killing around 50 people. People had gathered to hear the Ramadan sermon of the Islamic scholar Sheikh Dahiru Bauchi. In attendance was the country’s former military ruler and three-time opposition candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, who is from the north. After the sermon, as people were leaving, "the attacker approached the car of Sheikh Bauchi trying to get to it," says journalist Abdullahi Kaura Abubakar. "But the crowd was big, and he could not get through. Without realizing, they held the attacker away."
And then he detonated the bomb. "There were bits of bodies in the street," Abubakar says, "bits of hands, legs, blood everywhere." Soon after, news came that another bomb had detonated, aimed at Buhari’s convoy as it drove away from Kaduna. The former general’s car was peppered with bullets by gunmen who were also part of the ambush.
Both Sheikh Bauchi and Buhari survived, but some members of their retinue were killed. Although the bombings bore the characteristics of Boko Haram attacks, some have speculated that they were instead tied up with politics. Others believed this immediately — and acted.
A large group of young men attacked the army and the police in Kaduna, accusing them of being in league with the attackers. The police pushed them back with teargas and bullets. "They attacked the security because they believe that this was an assassination attempt by the southern government on the most popular politician in the north," Abubakar says.
"Now no one trusts each other," he adds
Somewhere in the middle of this is Boko Haram. The group continues to mystify many Nigerians, which only encourages more conspiracy theories that nobody can quell. "Nobody knows who or what they really are," Usman says. "They are able to one minute be bombing Abuja, the next attacking a bridge in the north, the next assassinating someone. How can one group do all this?"
In the three months since the Chibok girls were taken, Boko Haram has not let up its pace of violence. A crowded market in Maiduguri was bombed in July, killing at least 50. In June, as suicide bomber killed people watching a World Cup game in Adamawa. Soon after, Boko Haram marked Nigeria’s game against Argentina by blowing up a shopping plaza in Abuja. Another market in the religiously divided city of Jos was bombed in May, and the same month, members of the group also shot dead the emir of Gwoza, who who opposed them in the country’s northeast.
Today, many towns and villages in the north remain under intense threat. Boko Haram fighters are believed to be holed up in the Sambisa Forest or the Mandara Mountains, remote border regions on the fringes of government control. When fighters take over towns, they raise black flags. They then reportedly extort resources from the residents, perhaps kidnap young men and women, and pray, before withdrawing back to the bush. By the time the country’s poorly equipped military arrive, the militants have disappeared. (And, human rights organizations say, government soldiers don’t comprise a clear force for good; there have been accusations of civilian massacres by the army as it looks for Boko Haram.)
On Tuesday, some of the family members of the kidnapped girls in Chibok met with Jonathan in Abuja. Ayuba Lawson, a father of one of the girls, told the BBC that the president shed tears when they told their stories. "He was touched and all who were there were touched," Lawson said.
Meanwhile, however, community leaders in Chibok also told the Associated Press that their town remains "under siege."