Photo: Diariocritico de Venezuela via Wikimedia Commons
Last week while the internet raged about Charlie Hebdo, militants from Boko Haram carried out their bloodiest attack yet. At least 2,000 civilians, mostly women, children, and the elderly, were killed. An estimated 16 towns around the target region of Baga have been razed to the ground.
Back up. What’s Boko Haram?
“Boko Haram” which roughly translates into “the sin of Western Education,” is a radical insurgent group based mostly in the Northern, less oil-rich half of Nigeria. Though founded in 2002, Boko Haram executed their founder in 2009, installing leadership that was much more violent and radical. Since then, the group has orchestrated a massive prison break, kidnapped and murdered hundreds, if not thousands, of children, and reduced much of the region into a state of emergency.
It’s not really about radical Islam.
Off the record sources I spoke with who work in Western Africa downplayed the role radical Islam played in Boko Haram’s rise. One of the reasons it’s been so easy for Boko Haram to recruit has been the wide-spread unemployment– particularly youth unemployment– in Nigeria’s more rural north. Supporting this notion is a study from the Brookings Institute this year which found that youth unemployment outside of the cities almost doubled between 2009 and 2012–precisely the period when the group began to gain momentum.
Many suspect that the attack was in anticipation of next month’s elections in Nigeria. President Goodluck Jonathan has garnered criticism for his failure to address the crisis, reportedly taking last weekend off to attend his daughter’s wedding. Boko Haram’s ultimate goal is to defeat the Nigerian Army and establish a Caliphate under Sharia law. The acceleration of the attacks is most likely an attempt to undermine public safety in the name of pursuing a coup.
Last April, when Boko Haram abducted 276 girls from their school in the Northeastern town of Chiboc, the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, garnered wide-spread participation, including from First Lady Michelle Obama. However to date, none of the girls have been released (although some have escaped), and the international response has been widely condemned as insufficient.
Why is it so hard to stop them?
Most blame a variety of factors. President Goodluck obviously bears much of the blame for presiding over violence that has escalated dramatically each year. Nigeria is an economically powerful country, the largest economy in Africa and a major oil exporter. However it is also rife with corruption, and exact figures over where and how international aid has been put to use are impossible to come by. Boko Haram is also crueler than most militants– even ISIS–frequently using the children they kidnap in suicide bombings. Unlike France, Nigeria also does not have wide-spread freedom of the press or internet infrastructure, which has made reporting the crisis difficult.