If the Nigerian terror group wanted to gain international attention, it succeeded spectacularly after its armed militants abducted some 230 girls from a school in Chibok in the northeastern Borno state, on the night of April 14.
The attention Boko Haram is getting, however, could quickly turn out to be a toxic chalice. Abducting schoolgirls is very bad politics. Perhaps its leader Abubakar Shekau should have called Joseph Kony, leader of the Uganda-born Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Kony beat Shekau to the schoolgirl abducting business by all of 18 years. And paid dearly for it.
Since the Adicho abductions almost daily, there were protests by mothers demanding the return of the girls in Nigeria, and on the weekend there were rallies from London, Los Angeles, and Washington to demand the rescue of the schoolgirls by the terror group. America’s First Lady Michelle Obama has added her criticism, and the UK and US have joined the hunt for the girls.
Boko Haram has had its longest run in the international news, and with the spotlight on it, Shekau took the opportunity to remind the world that he was not the kind of villain who has a good side. He vowed to “sell” the schoolgirls, and news wire AFP reported him saying; “I abducted your girls, I will sell them in the market, by Allah.”
In Nigeria, newspapers reported that indeed the girls had been sold in neighbouring countries. The Daily Trust quoted an elder as saying some of the girls were married off to sect members for a 2,000 Naira bride price (that is $12 at exchange rate of 161 Nara to the dollar).
In October 10 1996, at the height of an LRA-led insurgency in northern Uganda, the rebels raided Aboke Secondary School in Apac district, and carted off 139 schoolgirls. With that, the “Aboke Girls”, as they came be to be known, became the most famous group of girls in East Africa.
Northern Uganda and northeastern Nigeria are nearly 2,400 kilometres apart, but the methods and ideology of Boko Haram and the LRA are strikingly similar, the 18 years of separation and the fact that the former is a Muslim fundamentalist and the latter a Christian fundamentalist group notwithstanding.
Boko Haram is fighting is fighting for a state based on strict Sharia (Islamic law) principles. The LRA was fighting for a state based on the Biblical 10 Commandments. Both love the AK-47 and hate the symbols of modernity, especially those associated with the West. On the days it considered to be a Sabbath, the LRA would cut off the legs of the infidels found riding bicycles, for example.
The LRA was undone by many things, but the Aboke abductions were among the top reasons. Boko Haram too, could be hit with the “Aboke Problem”. The story of the Aboke girls lingered on longer than the LRA wished, and all but ensured that they got themselves on the US list of terror organisations.
A book, Aboke Girls: Children Abducted in Northern Uganda by Belgian journalist Els De Temmerman followed, and more recently a film, Girl Soldier, starring Hollywood star Uma Thurman of Pulp Fiction fame. For both Boko and LRA, the abduction of schoolgirls clearly was more than just a protest at modern schooling.
There are cynical strategic calculations involved too. In the LRA’s case, it seemed to have been seeking three goals from the abduction of the Aboke girls: First, by 1996, the LRA had become frustrated by the stalemate it had reached with the government forces. It was clear at that point that it would never grow outside its corner of the north, and thus wouldn’t be able to seriously threaten President Yoweri Museveni’s government. Like Boko Haram, it was already abducting women, but with the Aboke bounty it could dangle the girls to entice young men to join its ranks.
Second, the abductions were sharply polarising. They were so horrific, they left no fence sitters in the conflict between the LRA and the Kampala government. If the LRA gained anything from that, it was that it had a clear picture of who its friends and enemies were.
Third, and perhaps most deviously, the abduction marked the point at which the already brutal LRA upped its macabre game. It took to hacking up people, cooking them, and leaving the “meal” in village squares and forcing people to eat it. The result was that it so terrified peasants over reporting on its activities to state security operatives, the LRA actually bought itself a breather.
Boko Haram may get all or some of the short-term strategic benefits the LRA gained, but history shows that it won’t last. Also, the stain of abducting little girls can never be washed away. It is always a wise tactic for rebels and terrorists to keep their fight narrowly focused as being between them and the state.
There are always people who hate the government of the day, and while they may not necessarily join the rebels, they won’t actively oppose them either. Killing and abducting children, especially little girls, changes that script radically. In the case of the Aboke girls, it produced two unlikely heroes who became international stars; the deputy headteacher of Aboke, the Italian Catholic nun Sister Rachele Fassera, and Angelina Atyam, mother of one of the abducted girls.
After the abduction of the girls, Rachele Fassera pursued the rebels. She caught up with them and began negotiating the release of the girls. They blinked first, and gave her 109 girls. Shortly thereafter, she, Atyam and the parents of the remaining abducted children formed the Concerned Parents Association.
There were few more famous names in the world at that point than Fassera and Atyam, and hardly any independent newspaper in the world in which their photos and stories didn’t appear. All this attention made it impossible for Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir to continue Khartoum’s patronage of the LRA. That in turn weakened the LRA, and a few years later the Uganda army had succeeded in pushing them into the wilds of South Suda and confining it there, never to step again on their home soil, except if they surrendered.
As a political problem for Museveni, the LRA was now a spent force. Bashir was to pay a particularly high price. With LRA cornered, he could no longer discourage Uganda from supporting the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army by unleashing the Kony rebels.
The reality of South Sudanese Independence grew closer.
It is likely that Boko Haram’s abduction of the Adicho schoolgirls, and the way in which it has energised international protest, could have the same effect. Now it has to fight harder and more ruthlessly to win anything.
As the British troops in Northern Ireland during the “Toubles”, and the Kenyan regime of the Daniel arap Moi in the 1990s, could tell Boko Haram, the one thing you don’t want is mothers out in the street beating pans against you. Few armies are strong enough to defeat that. Boko’s “fame” could turn out to be its bane.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa. Twitter:cobbo3