Up to Speed: What’s Happening to Nigeria’s Kidnapped Girls?

A violent abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls in Nigeria has shocked the world. Haven’t been paying attention until now? Here’s what you need to know.

Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters

Hundreds of schoolgirls are missing and thousands of civilians have been killed in a lawless part of northeastern Nigeria where the militant group Boko Haram rules with impunity. As Africa’s largest economy welcomes the World Economic Forum, Nigeria’s government is facing increased scrutiny for its mismanagement of the abductions. Here’s what you need to know about what’s happening.

How did this recent crisis begin?

On April 15, an estimated 276 girls were taken from their school dormitories in the town of Chibok, where they had gathered to take final exams. Militants of jihadist group Boko Haram overpowered their security guards and drove the girls away in truck. In the three weeks since, mostly in the first few hours, as many as 50 girls managed to escape. But, contrary to initial government claims, none have been rescued. The terrorists have threatened to sell the remaining hostages as slaves or wives—making little distinction between those categories. Two of the girls are said to have died and many are believed to be sick.

Why this sudden sense of alarm about an incident that took place weeks ago?

Global attention focused on the abductions on Monday, when a video of Boko Haram’s leader claiming responsibility for the kidnappings hit the web. “They are slaves and I will sell them because I have the market to sell them,” he said. Without effective government efforts to push back against the militants, they have continued a reign of terror. On Sunday night, 11 more young girls reportedly were kidnapped in the area.

Who is Boko Haram?

The group takes its name from a phrase meaning “Western education is sinful.” Boko Haram has been terrorizing Nigeria since 2009 with the aim of establishing an Islamic state governed by the militants’ version of sharia law. They’ve been especially intent on keeping children from getting educated, which they believe leads to a secular state. But their ideology has deep cultural roots in an area where women are rarely enrolled in school, explained Fidelis Mbah, a BBC correspondent stationed in North Nigeria. “There is no where that Islam preaches that people should not go to school,” he told the audience of a Google Hangout hosted by Girl Rising and Smart Girls that was moderated by The Daily Beast on Tuesday.

Hafsat Abiola, an activist and daughter of a late Nigerian democracy leader on the same call that many of Boko Haram’s soldiers are young uneducated boys who were trained by extremist Muslim clerics. “They’re trying now to impose their ideas because they were not able to get people in Borno state to support them,” she said, referring to cradle of the rebellion.

Why are the girls and their captors so hard to find?

Boko Haram’s stronghold in northeastern Nigeria, where the attack occurred, is a forested frontier where the borders of Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, and Chad converge. The group has been operating with near impunity “in perhaps a quarter or a third of the land area of Nigeria,” according to former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell in a Wednesday conference call hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations.

What are Boko Haram’s targets?

Boko Haram’s campaign of violence isn’t limited to the abduction of girls. Two months ago, the group slaughtered around 60 male students, letting the females escape with a warning to get married. A campaign to destabilize the country has escalated rapidly this year. The Nigerian capital of Abuja has been racked by bombings in the past few weeks, with the death toll nearing 100, and on Wednesday, an attack attributed to the militants killed an estimated 300 people in a border town. Amnesty International estimates the group has been responsible for 1,500 deaths this year alone.

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What was the Nigerian government response?

Nigerians have been outraged by what they’ve seen as government inaction and obfuscation. Not long after the kidnapping at Chibok, the Nigerian military announced that all but eight of the girls had been rescued—a claim they rescinded under after the families of the girls protested. For three weeks, the government continuously failed to act publicly or release conclusive information on the emergency. Reports from the ground told of infuriated locals arming themselves with whatever they could find and going into militant-controlled areas because the soldiers deployed in the search effort refused to.

It wasn’t until Sunday that President Goodluck Jonathan spoke about the situation for the first time—but his pledge to find the girls came with a warning to parents to cooperate with the state’s efforts.

“Look, we’re talking about more than 200 girls being kidnapped and here we have a president who is supposed to care, who is supposed to acknowledge this is a national disaster,” Mbah said. “Nothing significant has been demonstrated to Nigerians that these girls will be brought back alive.”

Then, on Monday, as pressure mounted on the government, First Lady Patience Jonathan reportedly ordered the arrest of two protest leaders who had been advocating for the girls’ rescue. According to one who was later released, the first lady berated them for being liars and trying to cast her husband in a negative light.

These efforts to sweep the crisis under the rug coincided with Nigeria’s preparation to host the World Economic Forum that opened in Abuja on Wednesday. As a thousand dignitaries arrive in the country, the government now has to grapple with fresh portrayals of its incompetence and instability instead of basking in the public relations glow generated when it recently got the title of Africa’s largest economy.

What is the impact of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign?

For three weeks, scant attention was paid to Nigeria’s hostage situation, but a burgeoning social media campaign has drawn much-needed attention to the area. In the past week alone, the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls has collected 1.2 million tweets, catalyzing international action. Hollywood and Washington both have jumped on the bandwagon, with the hashtag attaching itself to tweets from such diverse figures as Hillary Clinton and Chris Brown.

Through the weekend and this week, protests hit major cities across the globe, with activists demanding the government step up its efforts to rescue the girls and demanding intervention from the international community.

What is the United States doing?

The United States signaled it was paying attention to the global outrage on Tuesday, as the White House pledged to send a team of military and law enforcement experts to assist in the rescue of the girls. President Barack Obama promised to “do everything we can.” But details of the support are unknown, and Nigeria previously has been hesitant to take American help in the war on Boko Haram. “I think it’s highly unlikely there will be large numbers of Americans going to Nigeria,” said Campbell. “Any assistance…is likely to be essentially technical.”

What’s next?

Now, according to Abiola, the government and security forces have realized they need assistance. “We are aware we do not have capacity within Nigeria to rescue the girls,” she said in the Google Hangout.

It’s this uptick in attention and support that could actually turn a tide against Boko Haram and its perverse war on girls and education, Abiola said. “Because of the way the world has responded to the abduction of 200-plus girls in Chibok, the Nigerian government understands [women and girls] are not invisible, we’re not to be just set aside, but that they actually have a responsibility to protect us and ensure our security.”