The numbers were shocking: “Nigerian Unrest: Gunmen abduct ‘about 100 schoolgirls’” headlined the BBC after guerrillas believed to belong to the al Qaeda-allied group Boko Haram attacked a boarding school late Monday in the Nigerian state of Borno. But this is not the first time that these radical Islamist rebels have abducted girls en masse, and it almost certainly will not be the last.
In mid-February, according to local press reports, about 400 members of the group, some of them wearing military uniforms and traveling in military-style trucks, attacked the town of Konduga, also in Borno state, near the borders of Cameroon, Chad and Niger. They murdered 51 people and carried away 20 young women.
Whether the girls are to be brutalized as part of a systematic campaign of terror in which rape is a weapon of war, or whether they are taken away by young men who believe they can marry them under Islamic law, is not entirely clear. Since the girls have no say, any difference would lie only in the degree of violence, not the fact of violation.
The Nigerian military claimed on Wednesday, without offering any specifics, that all but eight of 129 abducted girls had escaped. But according to the BBC, many parents say their girls are still missing.
What is clear is Boko Haram, which means “Western education is forbidden,” likes to focus violence on schools, and especially girls’ schools. Western education for men is bad enough in the view of these militants; any education for women is worse. In the Government Girls’ Secondary School in Chibok, where the latest attack took place, the young women reportedly were in their dormitories studying for exams when the attackers arrived.
They were loaded into trucks and driven out into the bush, but dozens—reportedly as many as 80—managed to escape when the trucks got bogged down. The father of one told the Nigerian online newspaper Daily Post that the kidnappers did not shoot and “allowed those who could run to go but those who could not run either as a result of fear or wounds are still with them in the bush.” The man said his daughter told him there were over 100 attackers and that there were initially 243 girls taken: “She said the insurgents asked them to count themselves.”
Men described in the Nigerian press as vigilantes, local hunters and soldiers tracked the attackers, and found the women who escaped and helped them to get back to their families.
In November the U.S. State Department designated Boko Haram and a splinter group, Ansaru, as “foreign terrorist organizations.” It noted Boko Haram’s close ties to the North African chapter of al Qaeda, and said it is responsible for “thousands of deaths in northeast and central Nigeria over the last several years including targeted killings of civilians.”
In February, Secretary of State John Kerry denounced what he called “a brazen attack” on a village near the border with Cameroon that “took the lives of more than 100 innocent people.” Not less than a week after that, said Kerry, “Boko mounted another attack in Bama, setting 1,500 buildings ablaze, killing more than 115 people and leaving many others injured.” The United States is providing Nigeria with counterterrorism assistance, according to a statement from Kerry. “We stand with the people of Northern Nigeria in their struggle against violent extremism.”
But despite American encouragement and backing, the Nigerian government of President Goodluck Jonathan has made little headway in its war on the militants. It imposed a state of emergency in Borno and neighboring regions that are Boko Haram strongholds deep in the interior of the African continent, but it has fought a desultory counterterror campaign, and much of the funding for the fight is alleged to have been lost to corruption.
This week Boko Haram appeared to be gaining confidence and extending its range. The attack on the girls’ schools was near the established war zone. But on Monday a massive bomb hit a bus terminal on the outskirts of the capital Abuja, killing at least 71 people.
Ironically, all this is happening at a moment when oil-rich Nigeria has discovered, due to a change in its accounting procedures, that it has the biggest economy in all of Africa. Numbers are forever being revised there, it seems. And big and powerful as Nigeria is, a leading newspaper in Burkina Faso noted it feels like “a locomotive that never quits running off the rails.”