In his New Year’s broadcast, Nigeria’s president Muhammadu Buhari announced that the state had beaten Boko Haram, which has terrorised its north-east for nine years. It was a more confident variant on the message his government and military has repeated since 2015, and unwisely so. In late February, Mr Buhari was forced to acknowledge a “national disaster”: the disappearance of 110 girls following a raid by the Islamist militant group on a school in Dapchi five days before. The outcry is growing.
The echoes of the 2014 abduction of 270 girls from Chibok, which sparked the global Bring Back Our Girls campaign, are overwhelming, though the then president, Goodluck Jonathan, did not address the kidnappings publicly for weeks. While some captives escaped, and others were much later freed in exchange for militants, more than 100 even now remain missing. The case came to epitomise the state’s failings, and contributed to Mr Jonathan’s defeat in 2015’s elections. Yet Mr Buhari’s government, facing a presidential contest next year, appears to have learned little: its response has been chaotic, contradictory and tardy. The police and army have at times seemed more concerned with blaming each other than finding the victims.
Boko Haram has long exploited the power of gender, not only abusing women but treating them as pawns. It also understands propaganda. That is likely to have played a part here, in addition to the proven value of prisoners for exchanges and ransoms. Hundreds more women and girls have been seized in smaller raids in recent years – as have large numbers of men and boys – with scant attention paid. What more dramatic rebuttal could there be to the state’s claims of victory than a carbon copy of its highest profile failure.
The military has reclaimed towns and cities and is processing hundreds of militants through the courts. Yet last year Boko Haram carried out more than twice as many suicide bombings as in 2016, and it continues to recruit, not only by force. This insurgency is too entrenched to be ended at the barrel of a gun. Indeed, unpunished abuses by security forces – including the rape of those fleeing Boko Haram and the killing of civilians – have helped to do the group’s work for it, destroying any trust in authorities and creating a thirst for vengeance. The sect has presented itself as the solution to the shortcomings of the Nigerian state, both material and moral. In the absence of other economic, social and political opportunities, young men, and some women, are drawn in. Development is desperately needed in the north-east; but that, of course, requires a degree of security. Some think that the government’s plan to shift villagers in to garrison towns, effectively ceding rural areas, could work as an interim measure. But much will depend on the planning. Sceptics warn that settlements already lacking adequate facilities and services will be forced to absorb large populations unused to and unskilled for urban life.
Overall, the international community should step up support, particularly focusing on effective grassroots schemes for economic development. It is time, too, for greater attention to long-term rehabilitation for victims of all kinds – and also for former members. Deradicalisation programmes still appear to be at an embryonic stage. None of this will speed the release of the girls snatched from Dapchi. It is possible that international pressure could spur improved government efforts to free them, as some in Nigeria hope. But in the long run the north-east needs more than a burst of short-lived, selective attention.