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Will Buhari ‘#BringBackOurGirls’?




IT’S been more than 365 days that over 200 innocent girls were unceremoniously kidnapped from their high school in northern Nigeria by the shadowy and ISIS-affiliated terrorist group, Boko Haram.

The “Chibok girls,” as they have come to be known, are about to enter the Guinness Book of World Records as a group of hostages whose whereabouts or existential conditions are as elusive as those of Jimmy Hoffa, the American legendary labour union leader who mysteriously vanished without trace 40 years ago.

With last weekend’s election of General Muhammadu Buhari as Nigeria’s new president, hopes are being raised that the Chibok girls might soon regain their freedom.

General Buhari has been elected against the backdrop of what turned out to be Nigeria’s most hotly contested, potentially perilous, and arguably acrimonious presidential elections in the nation’s history.

The election was controversial partly because of its link with the kidnapping of the girls, which was alleged to have been masterminded and bankrolled by political elites in northern Nigeria, who were bent on “harassing” outgoing President Goodluck Jonathan, a southerner, out of the presidential race.

By holding the girls for the period leading up to the elections, Jonathan would be portrayed as a very weak and ineffective president, who could not be trusted with the country’s security.

If the “harassment hypothesis” is true, it would imply that the probability of releasing the girls is very high, now that the elections are over and the northern elites’ mission accomplished! The question, then, is: are “our girls” about to return? Should we begin to lay a red carpet and amass bouquets of roses in anticipation of their long-awaited return? Unfortunately, this is one of those hypotheses that can only be tested ex post, rather than ex ante.

If the girls are released soon, then it would be difficult to reject the hypothesis that they were kidnapped for no reason other than to send Goodluck Jonathan back to his hometown Otueke, from where he unexpectedly emerged as Nigeria’s president, following a mosaic of strange events that included the sudden death of de facto President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua in 2010.

But let’s not forget the “fear-of-Buhari” factor; the widely held notion that Buhari is a no-nonsense man, who has pledged to decimate Boko Haram if elected president.

It is believed that Boko Haram might therefore release the girls to avoid Buhari’s wrath, much like American hostages were released by their Iranian captors after the election and inauguration of a similar no-nonsense President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

The 52 American hostages spent 444 days in captivity. If, however, the girls are not released soon or never seen again as former President Olusegun Obasanjo had previously insinuated, then the “harassment hypothesis” would be null and void.

We would then be exploring alternative reasons for the girls’ disappearance. As an ISIS-type organization, could it be that Boko Haram’s goal is to establish an Islamic caliphate in northern Nigeria, much like the one ISIS has been trying to establish in Iraq and Syria?

But why have Boko Haram’s targets and victims been mainly fellow Muslims, who supposedly would populate the newly formed caliphate? Why have they bombed mosques, assassinated religious clerics, and even attempted to kill a fellow northerner, President-elect Buhari in July, 2014? Rather than conjure motives for Boko Haram’s egregious transgressions, a more relevant question should be whether there are objective conditions in northern Nigeria that may have enabled the organization to metamorphose from a benign and innocuous religious sect, to the monstrosity it has now become.

One of those objective conditions is the extremely depressing economic situation in northern Nigeria. Anyone who has visited Boko Haram’s sphere of influence in northern Nigeria, as this writer did about 25 years ago, would not be surprised by the sect’s emergence and audacity.

In the summer of 1990, I was invited to participate in an international conference in Ndjamena, the capital of Chad Republic.

Because there was no direct flight then from Nigeria to Chad, I opted to fly from Lagos to Maiduguri in northern Nigeria, and then took a bus from there to Gamboru, the border town between Nigeria and Cameroon, and now a bastion of Boko Haram.

One of the consequences of the haphazard manner by which the French and British colonial masters carved up West Africa is that, to get into Chad from northern Nigeria, one has to pass through a very small strip of land in Cameroon.

During the four-hour or so bus ride from Maiduguri to Gamboru, I noticed the glaring economic desolation of the entire area.

There were no visible economic activities other than some herdsmen tending to a motley collection of cows and cattle, and mud houses along the deserted highway. Much of the region was swarming with street beggars.

Gamboru itself, one of the major operational bases of Boko Haram, was nothing more than a huge underground economy made up of black-market currency traders, traffickers of various stripes, fixers, and petty traders.

One of those traffickers offered to smuggle me, for a token fee, into Chad on motorcycle through the now-dreaded, terrorists-infested Sambisa forests.

The alternative would be to go through the apparently cumbersome and corruption-laden immigration process at the Cameroonian border crossing. Prompted by my civic instincts and phobia for the jungle, I turned down the offer and opted to go through the official immigration process, a decision I later regretted, as I never made it to Ndjamena.

That is a story for another day, but it just points to the fact that Boko Haram operates within a stateless, lawless, and economically depressed swath of northern Nigeria.

In that part of the country, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to decipher the nationalities of most of those traversing the border areas.

Which is no surprise why the Nigerian military, unfamiliar with the rules of unconventional warfare, has been unsuccessful in its attempts to annihilate Boko Haram. Thus, the combination of economic desolation and neglect; the lack of state institutions, nay effective institutions, have made it possible for Boko Haram to thrive.

As if the economic desolation and institutional incapacity of northern Nigeria are not serious enough, living conditions in the Boko Haram sphere of influence are dire. While about 70 percent of Nigerians live below $1.25 per day, the percentage is over 80 percent in the north.

Nigeria’s official unemployment rate is about 24 percent, but the unofficial rate of over 50 percent is concealed by the high incidence of underemployment and a bloated, unproductive informal sector. The official unemployment rate in the north is said to be as high as 40 percent, while the unofficial rate is close to 70 percent.

With no natural resources in the north, jobs in the oil and mining sectors are concentrated in the south. Thus, the kidnappings and spate of violent attacks by Boko Haram may be a smokescreen for resentment over several years of socio-economic neglect and marginalisation of the vast number of the talakawas (a Hausa phraseology for the poorest of the poor or the equivalent of Frank Fanon’s “wretched of the Earth,”) Economic deprivation and disempowerment in northern Nigeria are so deeply entrenched that it would take a minimum of 20 years of sustained and sound economic policies to transform the region.

Economic challenges in the north are difficult to address by the region’s extremely low literacy rates and lack of skills. The illiteracy rate in northern Nigeria is as high as 80 percent, while the average number of years of schooling is as low as 2 years. Poor education in the region is made worse by the fact that several parents enroll their children only in Arabic language schools, where secular subjects like science, mathematics and social studies are forbidden.

The North’s economic predicament has also been exacerbated by the fact that most of the major corporations in Nigeria are located in the south, due to historical, economic and cultural factors. With corporations increasingly embracing Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), most corporate handouts and philanthropy are going to southern residents, with very little going to the north.

This has further marginalized the north and provided a basis for their resentment. Even if President-elect Buhari were genuinely interested in pacifying and providing succour to the talakawas, there are few economically efficient conduits through which economic largesse could be filtered to the poor in the north, at least in the short-term.

In the past, the Federal Government of Nigeria had sought to pacify the north by offering its political elites juicy contracts and political appointments.

But proceeds from those contracts have not been used to foster economic development in the north, but have rather enabled the elites to purchase private jets and luxurious mansions in the capital city, Abuja. This has caused considerable inequality in the north and accentuated resentments by the talakawas.

The vast majority of the talakawas have no skills that would make them eligible for government jobs, the major sources of employment in the region. Even if private investors were to invest in Northern Nigeria, the beneficiaries would be skilled workers from the south, who often are resented by northerners for taking their jobs.

During a recent speech at the London Think Tank Chatham House, President-elect Buhari expressed his unwillingness to grant amnesty to Boko Haram.

Since the girls apparently could not be rescued through military action, despite support by the United States and Nigeria’s regional allies, it seems that the chances of the girls returning will depend much less on government efforts and more on the “benevolence” of Boko Haram.

Considering Boko Haram’s antecedents, an organization that ignobly showcased the beheadings of its innocent victims on numerous occasions, the notion of a Boko Haram benevolence is at best wishful thinking, and at worst ludicrous.

But wishful thinking can sometimes be therapeutic, especially for family members and those traumatised by the unprecedented kidnapping of innocent young girls, whose only infraction was that they sought an education that would hopefully extricate them and their families from intergenerational poverty and years of economic disempowerment.

Only time shall tell which of the various competing hypotheses is true. But let’s hope the “harassment hypothesis” is either true, or that Boko Haram will indeed be benevolent. Better still, let’s hope the fear of Buhari is real. Steve Onyeiwu is Professor of Economics at Allegheny College, Meadville, Pennsylvania, and author of Emerging Issues in Contemporary African Economies (Palgrave/Macmillan, forthcoming, May 2015).

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