Boko Haram had already killed over 80 schoolchildren in the previous ten months, and its campaign to make Nigeria a hardline Islamic state has cost 1,500 lives this year alone.
Two terrible events indicate a deepening political crisis in Nigeria. The first occurred on the night of April 14, when the extreme Islamist group Boko Haram abducted 276 girls from the government secondary school in the north-eastern district town of Chibok; the group seized eight more girls from another village on May 5. In the second atrocity, also on May 5, Boko Haram slaughtered 300 people in a 12-hour attack on Gamboru Ngala, a border town undefended because troops were elsewhere in the region. There was local resistance; in Chibok, 15 soldiers fought the attackers for five hours, but no reinforcements arrived despite prior warnings from neighbouring villages. Parents and others chased the abductors into the forest, and 55 girls managed to escape, but the area is hilly and densely forested. Two weeks later, villagers near the border with Cameroon reportedly saw 11 trucks carrying a large number of girls, and local intermediaries say two of the girls have died from snakebite. Boko Haram had already killed over 80 schoolchildren in the previous ten months, and its campaign to make Nigeria a hardline Islamic state has cost 1,500 lives this year alone, including Muslims and Christians alike. The sect leader Abubakar Shekau has said in a video that he will “sell” the kidnapped girls.
Boko Haram’s methods are similar to those of the Ugandan Christian sect the Lord’s Resistance Army, which in the 1990s kidnapped girls to be sex slaves for its soldiers and boys to be child soldiers. Yet the Nigerian federal government in Abuja has responded sluggishly. President Goodluck Jonathan took nearly a fortnight even to acknowledge the abductions, which he eventually did in the light of international outrage (the Pakistani daily Dawn, for example, bluntly condemned the kidnappings). Secondly, reliable information is scarce; the three most north-easterly states have been under a state of emergency for a year, and the international airport in one of them, the Borno capital Maiduguri, has been closed since Boko Haram attacked it in December. Tragically for Nigeria’s 170 million people, who have never voted on communal lines, this has helped Abuja avoid accountability and has worsened the atmosphere; the Christian Association of Nigeria has published the names only of the Christian girls kidnapped, saying they had been sold to “unclean people.” Worse still, front-line troops are not getting better training or weaponry despite government claims of increased defence outlays, and police officers say they now have to buy their own uniforms in the market. One clear implication is that corruption and weak public institutions make countries easy targets for determined terrorist groups.