One year on from the 200+ Chibok girls capture by Boko Haram in Nigeria and the #BringBackOurGirls viral social media campaign, and there is still no news. Today, organisations and individuals around the world are trying to keep the media and political interest, as well as the girls, alive. The value of African lives and lack of international interest, alongside diplomatic and United Nations powerlessness, still means it is up to media and public channels to keep their fate an important issue.
365 Days On, Trending Hashtag
To keep the awareness current, a new hashtag campaign , alongside the old, has emerged to mark the lack of progress #365DaysOn.
The inaction has led to complaints about Hashtag diplomacy and foreign policy with some questioning whether Twitter or petitions can achieve anything at all? In terms of Human Rights campaigns it has made a difference in seeing various international violations of freedom or fair trials, both acknowledged, and sometimes ended:
The situation has contributed to the ousting of Goodluck Jonathan as President and the new incumbent Muhammadu Buhari, whilst saying that he would “do everything in its power to bring them home”, suggested that he could offer no promises and people shouldn’t get their hopes up.
Boko Haram brazenly added to the subdued expectations by saying that the girls had all [been] “converted to Islam” and “married off”.
Boko Haram still seem untouchable
Amnesty Internationalhave said that the Boko Haram militants have abducted 2,000 girls and young women in the last 15 months, forcing them to be cooks, sex slaves, wives, and fighters.
Nigeria, whilst on target to become Africa’s richest and fastest growing nation is also one of its most complex, and one were western influence is minimal. Indeed, Boko Haram’s very name means “Western education is forbidden”.
Islamic State (IS)
With Boko Haram and Al Shabab allying themselves with Islamic State it means that North Africa from Algeria to Sinai and Nigeria to Sudan, is under threat of extremist conquest and a massive increase in further human rights violations. Consolidation under a broad IS umbrella in Niger and Libya could see an extremist Islamist caliphate more a reality than a threat.
Ongoing battle & the Value of African Lives
Whilst IS and Boko Haram use the Quran as justification, Muslim leaders around the world also condemn their actions from the same texts. This remains, therefore, extremist ideology parading itself as religious purity or geographic gain. Bring Back Our Girls remains the rallying cry, but all African human rights issues and news stories need to be given similar prominence and awareness. African lives, when hundreds – if not thousands, die or go missing, should not be consigned to small-print inside page news, but be given the weight and international importance it needs.
Since the early years of the century before last century nearly 200 years ago, in diverse ways individual countries and eventually the world, at the behest of the United Nations since 1977, have fought for various forms of women’s equality and celebrated women.
Now known as International Women’s Day it is a national holiday in many countries, appropriately just for women, in China. Like Mother’s Day, which falls on a Sunday in the UK, it is not a day off for mothers, working or otherwise!
In 1910, an International Women’s Conference of 100 women from 17 countries was held in Copenhagen, Denmark. At the conference, Luise Zietz, a German Socialist, suggested establishing an annual International Woman’s Day. The delegates agreed and promoted it as a way to foster equal rights, including suffrage, for women. It was observed far and wide across the Austro-Hungarian empire, even in Russia in 1913. The First World War suspended much advancement but 1918 brought rights for women in England and Germany, but not until 1944 in France or Greece! French Algeria took until 1958 to grant the right to Muslim women.
2015 IWD Themes
The International Woman’s Day theme for 2015 is ‘Make It Happen’ whilst the UN theme is “Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity: Picture it!“.
Bring Back Our Girls
Whilst Boko Haram this week have seemingly sworn allegiance to IS (Islamic State, ISIS, Daesh) it seems less likely than ever that the 200+ Chibok girls kidnapped in Nigeria a year ago will be returned. Yet, the UN seems to be more worried about declaring the cultural vandalism of destroying ancient Assyrian artefacts in Nimrud and other historic cities of Iraq and Syria, a war crime, than the heinous human rights atrocities of kidnap, torture, forced marriage, stoning of women and more, as crimes against humanity, especially women.
Somali-born feminist and activist, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, fights against forced marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM) and honour violence. In a recent Wall Street Journal piece, Ali wrote that:
“The kidnapping of the schoolgirls throws into bold relief a central part of what the jihadists are about: the oppression of women. Boko Haram sincerely believes that girls are better off enslaved than educated. The terrorists’ mission is no different from that of the Taliban assassin who shot and nearly killed 15-year-old Pakistani Malala Yousafzai because she advocated girls’ education. As I know from experience, nothing is more anathema to the jihadists than equal and educated women.”
Last year I attended the awesome Women of the World Festival in London, this year I followed most of it on Twitter and Radio 4, and heard an interview that gave me pause for thought. Was it not “preaching to the converted” the interviewer asked? Perhaps, but it was also encouraging the feminist faithful. Still, more does need to be done.
Selma, Voting and Double Discrimination of Black Women
This week has also seen the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights march and demonstration which triggered US voting reform. As one young woman visiting the site this month said, “Voting was never really important to me,” she said. “But I will never not vote again.”
The 1965 activism on 7 March was one of several marches to pressure full enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the legalities of which were being avoided by those finding ways to inhibit black voters. At Selma, one of the leading organisers, Amelia Boynton was beaten unconscious by state troopers. Rosa Parks had been present too. Boynton survived and in 1990, she was honoured with the Martin Luther King, Jr. Freedom Medal.
Amelia was born to parents of African-American/Cherokee heritage in 1911 – the very year that International Women’s Day was marked for the first time by a million people in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. As a young girl Amelia had joined the fight for women’s suffrage. As an adult she organised alongside Martin Luther King. While Selma was 50% black, only 1% of the town’s African-American population were registered to vote.
In 1964 Amelia ran for the Congress from Alabama, “the first female African-American ever to do so and the first female of any race to run for the ticket of the Democratic Party in Alabama.”
Triple Discrimination of Women
Imagine being black, female, and bisexual or a lesbian – before race equality, voting reform, gay rights, let alone sex discrimination. Furthermore, don’t imagine but recognise that some of that prejudice came from other women, white heterosexual women. Audre Lorde, was one such black lesbian feminist who realised that not all women fight for “all women”, in reaction she became a staunch advocate of intersectional feminism of the “continuum of women”, of ANY women, of ALL women:
“I am not free while any woman is unfree even when her shackles are very different from my own” – Audre Lorde
In addition, she spoke about the oversimplification of labels and single issue politics:
“there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle. We do not live single-issue lives.”
We are multifaceted human beings, complex creatures, not to be reduced to someone’s label or category and in the process denied our unique identity and individuality.
Yet More Stigma
Add to all of the above prejudices and discrimination that some aspects of mental health disproportionately affect women. For instance trans women and bisexual women have the greatest mental health risks of all groups. 25% of women will suffer from depression, 15% post-natally. Women are twice as likely to experience anxiety disorders as men and ten times as likely to suffer from anorexia.
As Audre Lorde argued it is time for a coalition of the continuum of women to fight for any woman, until all women are free, from the schoolgirls of Nigeria to the sweatshops of the Far East, and the LGBTI women denied recognition and respect, whether as asylum seekers in Yarl’s Wood or as trans teenagers taking their lives and being misgendered in life and death.
Whilst gender may be a construct and sex an accident of birth, how we treat each other is the one choice we have the power to make.
The extremist war of terror in Nigeria continues to claim more victims. Reports are coming in of around 600 more schoolgirls being captured. In April around 280 schoolgirls were abducted and in May several attacks killed dozens in the villages of northern Nigeria and over 120 died from two bombs in the central Nigerian million-plus population cosmopolitan city of Jos, J-town, or “Tin City”. Jos has been the scene of intra-community violence since 1994 between its Christian, Muslim, and minority residents, killing thousands of people, hardly the “home of peace and tourism” as the Plateau State is known.
Two decades of escalating violence
Jos has been the scene of intra-community violence since 1994 between its Christian, Muslim, and minority residents, killing thousands of people, hardly the “home of peace and tourism” as the Plateau State is known.
Over the last 5 months more than 2000 people have been killed in Nigerian violence and thousands more displaced, according to Nigeria’s National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA). From 2009-2013 under 4000 were killed, so there has been a definite escalation in the violence. Perhaps, this may be a response to Nigeria’s belated heavy-handed response to Boko Haram that has included alleged deaths in custody of probably over 1000 suspected Boko Haram fighters last year. Leaked information from a senior Nigerian army officer suggested 950 had died in the first half of 2013 alone. Back in 2009, Boko Haram’s then leader, Mohammed Yusuf, was killed in police custody after a police raid.
Education targeted by terror
Much of the violence appears indiscriminate, even if at times it has been directed at Christian or Muslim, churches or mosques, it often ends up being directed at schools, colleges, markets, wherever civilians gather and indiscriminate violence can have its most terrifying effect.
“Attacks against schoolchildren, teachers and school buildings demonstrate an absolute disregard for the right to life and the right to education.” – Lucy Freeman, Amnesty International’s deputy Africa director.
The full report by Amnesty on the terrorising of education in Nigeria makes one wonder whether Boko Haram would go to Taliban-like extremes of restricting access to education, especially of teenage girls. Indeed, Boko Haram in Hausa allegedly means “Western education is sin/prohibited (haram)”. The boko element can also mean “fraud”, “bogus” or “inauthentic”. Even locals, are not entirely sure what it means! It is less of a mouthful than its Arabic title: Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad, or “Congregation of the People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad”.
Complicated causes, not just religious
The apparent war between religions and ideologies masks more basic rivalries over resources, land, power, and tribal identities. Religion just exacerbates the incendiary melting pot.
Benjamin A Kwashi, the Anglican Archbishop of Jos, has said that:
“those who have in the past used violence to settle political issues, economic issues, social matters, intertribal disagreements, or any issue for that matter, now continue to use that same path of violence and cover it up with religion.”
An excellent Al Jazeera report into the origins and rise of Boko Haram concluded that:
“Unabated violence, a feeling of marginalisation by the federal government, unemployment and poverty however remain the primary seeds of discontent…” – Yvonne Ndege and Azad Essa, Al Jazeera
Ethnic or Economic Tensions?
Chris Kwaja is a lecturer and researcher at the Centre for Conflict Management at the University of Jos in Nigeria and writes:
“[A]s is often the case with identity conflicts in Africa…socially constructed stereotypes…are manipulated to trigger and drive violence in Jos. They veil deeper institutional factors within Nigerian law that are abused and exploited to deny citizens access to resources, basic rights, and participation in political processes—factors that, left unaddressed, have the potential to trigger violence across the country.” (p2)
“The ethnic or religious dimensions of the conflict have subsequently been misconstrued as the primary driver of violence when, in fact, disenfranchisement, inequality, and other practical fears are the root causes.” (p4)
Nigeria is as riven and driven by identity politics, ethnic “indigene” and/or religious affiliation as many xenophobic groups are racist against black Africans in the predominantly white West.
“In a survey conducted by Ellsworth in 1999, titled Re-imagined Communities, it was discovered that ethnicity and religious attachment are the two top ranked identity makers for a vast majority of Nigerians than other indices such as National, ECOWAS and African. The xenophobic tendencies that quietly run in our system is further compounded when the religious card is flashed, as is typical of Christian/ Muslim conflicts throughout most of the north, which is usually about anything (politics, economic control and competition after scarce resources, ethnicity).” Rotimi Maye, Nigeria and Indigeneship Question
Invariably, the victims are drawn from all religions and not just one, and from multiple indigenous and immigrant ethnic groups, of which Nigeria has some 500, 70% made up of Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo, and Falani.
Nigeria has, this year, become Africa’s largest nation and economy, and is now ranked 26th in the world, thanks, in part, to its oil wealth, mainly in the south – something that is also fought over. Not only is Africa a divided continent by perhaps 3000 languages and ethnic groups, so too it is divided by wealth and opportunity, health and oil.
Boko Haram origins, Sharia law
Almost half of Nigeria, mainly in the north, now has some form of Sharia law. Over the last decade the extremist Islamist group Boko Haram has sought to impose Sharia and depose the existing rule of law. It is even against other muslims and one of its founding leaders firmly believed in a flat earth fundamentalism. Many Nigerian Muslim groups have condemned it. One Nigerian Muslim leader, The Sultan of Sokoto Sa’adu Abubakar, called Boko Haram “anti-Islamic” and “an embarrassment to Islam”.
“While Boko Haram is a religious organisation, it is almost impossible to separate the activities of the group with the political, economic and territorial struggles in northern Nigeria which, in spite of a secular consitution, is often divided on religious lines. Established in 2002 in Maiduguri, Boko Haram spent 2002-2009 consolidating its base, spreading its disdain for Western education and government corruption, culminating in the creation of alternative schools and attacking symbols of state power…” – Al Jazeera report
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a Somali-born feminist, activist and founder of the eponymously named AHA Foundation which seeks to protect women in the West from being subjected to religious or cultural oppressions including forced marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM) and honour violence. For her the conflict in Nigeria, at least that part for which Boko Haram can be held responsible, is about religion – or rather the patriarchal putting down of women, and jihadist suspicion of the liberal West. In a recent Wall Street Journal piece, Ali wrote that:
“The kidnapping of the schoolgirls throws into bold relief a central part of what the jihadists are about: the oppression of women. Boko Haram sincerely believes that girls are better off enslaved than educated. The terrorists’ mission is no different from that of the Taliban assassin who shot and nearly killed 15-year-old Pakistani Malala Yousafzai—as she rode a school bus home in 2012—because she advocated girls’ education. As I know from experience, nothing is more anathema to the jihadists than equal and educated women.”
#BringBackOurGirls, Western ignorance about Africa
Boko Haram were behind the kidnapping of some 276 Chibok schoolgirls last month which attracted international attention with the social media Twitter campaign #BringBackOurGirls. Again, somewhat indiscriminate as though the majority were Christian, several were Muslim, around 50 have subsequently escaped. Indeed, some images used to highlight their plight were not even of the kidnapped girls, or even Nigerian.
The West only kicked up a fuss when it was schoolgirls that were kidnapped, much as Live Aid in the 1980s fed off the famine of Africa’s starving using emotional images to stir up interest in a continent we were otherwise willing to ignore. US television networks ignored Boko Haram this last year despite 1500+ recent killings because African lives are worth less or, perhaps, even considered worthless. News stories for just 4 missing British sailors, a child-saving cat, or the latest UKIP xenophobic “Bongo-Bongo land” own-goal, dominate over any news from the “Dark Continent“, a reference originally not to race or colour, but to Africa’s remote and mysterious unknowns. To this day, for many, it remains a great unknown.
“The more Westerners learn about Africa from Africans, the better.” – Robert Bates
“Unfortunately…most westerners form their opinions of Africa based on the reporting and news in their own countries” – Louise Mushikiwabo
In a 2010 Guardian article, Louise Mushikiwabo, Rwanda’s Foreign Minister, went on to say that “In a globalised world we need to know more about each other than ever and the absence of genuine engagement only serves to exacerbate suspicion, and may affect the lives of the very citizens whom we all ultimately serve.” This could apply to any ethnic or ideological group, not only Africa and its 53 nations and thousands of languages.
Indeed, to every headline there is often a complex contextual backstory, no less so than in Nigeria. For instance, this AllAfrica report by Margaret Kimberley, editor and senior columnist at Black Agenda Report, cites the background to the Boko Haram kidnapping:
“Boko Haram members were detained by the police in 2011 and 2012 and that the group swore revenge. Boko Haram leader Abubakr Shekau said in one of his many videos, “Since you are now holding our women, just wait and see what will happen to your own women… to your own wives according to sharia law.” The kidnappings of the past two years are a direct result of the government’s mistreatment of its people and its failed efforts to fight Boko Haram.” – Margaret Kimberley, Nigeria: How Not to ‘Bring Back Our Girls’
Nigeria’s oxymoronically named President Goodluck Jonathan has described them as “enemies of human progress and civilisation”, a “tragic assault on human freedom”.
President Jonathan, whose wife is called Patience, are Christians from the Ijaw people of southern Nigeria. He holds a Masters degree and a PhD in Zoology and prior to entering politics and becoming President had worked in education and environmental protection. His people, the Ijaws, since the late 1990s had been involved in mainly peaceful protest against the oil companies‘ exploitation of their homeland and suffered state and military crackdowns of their actions.
Nigeria has all the potential to become an economic powerhouse – if it can control its ethnic and religious tensions, not to mention the international oil company exploitation and corruption. The President has faced calls to resign over the handling of, and seeming inaction over, the schoolgirls kidnapping. One critic wrote:
“It is all because those at the helm in the nation attach no value to the lives of others”.
That may well be true, but the “zero value” attached to human lives can surely be laid at the door of Boko Haram and others too. In the past Jonathan has instituted peaceful and progressive policies, so one hopes he will continue to reform and stabilise the country, and face his critics with renewed action on issues that divide the nation. Nigeria’s leader needs to be a leader of the people and of all its peoples. [Update: Goodluck Jonathan’s presidency is over and #365DaysOn we are now closer on #BringBackOurGirls]