Two years ago, young people flooded Facebook with Kony 2012. Today, still awaiting the capture of Joseph Kony, the world has reacted to the April 14 kidnapping of hundreds of schoolgirls by the now notorious Boko Haram. Whether these trends through social media represent a genuine interest in world affairs, or simply an opportunity to self-promote, #BringBackOurGirls has indeed generated publicity for Northern Nigeria.
An understanding of the origins of the group, which calls itself Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wasl-Jihad, or “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad,” warrants a brief examination of life in Nigeria.
The paradox of the Nigerian economy has troubled the nation for decades since gaining independence from the British. How can the largest economy in Africa belong to a country in which 70 percent of its population still lives on less than $1.25 per day? Nigeria also has the largest number of children not in school, yet young Nigerians can be found scattered throughout the most prestigious universities in Europe and the U.S.
The answer to this inequality lies in the handling of the nation’s most prosperous natural resource: oil. Petroleum accounts for over 95 percent of all Nigerian exports and generates billions of dollars in profits, yet the Nigerian people receive little benefit for the extraction of their natural resource; instead, most profits never move beyond the select elite of Nigerian society.
This economic mismanagement has hindered the development of a strong middle class in Nigeria and has especially confined the Northern region, where poverty has soared to over 70 percent. Without diversification of the economy, the majority of Nigerians living in poverty are subject to the rise and fall of the price of oil as demonstrated over the past few years.
Another factor that has directly threatened human rights and has spread terrorism in Northern Nigeria is the environment. Global climate change leads to drought and shortages of resources in the North that further burden an already impoverished population. Desperation drives unemployed and young Northerners to join the ranks of the extremists. The Maitatsine sect, widely viewed as the precursor to the Boko Haram, began in the midst of an ecological disaster that displaced thousands of former farmers and herdsmen.
Corruption and inequality in Nigeria has facilitated the emergence of the Boko Haram, which, under the leadership of Abubakar Shekau, has waged war in the region for the past five years. The Boko Haram grew after its founding in 2002, with the goal of imposing Sharia law upon all of Nigeria.
Having lost its original leader, who was publicly executed in 2009, the group rallied together and freed over 700 of its followers in a 2010 prison break.
The kidnapping of the schoolgirls in Borno is only the latest of the violent attacks the group has committed. No hashtag trend spread with the same magnitude as #BringBackOurGirls when 50 plus schoolboys died in February, nor when the group shot 40 sleeping students in dormitories at an agricultural college in 2013, nor the April 14 bombing that killed close to 100 people. More recently, at the beginning of May, the group destroyed a bridge near the Cameroonian border, killing 30. The Boko Haram attacked a second bridge on May 9 with an unknown number of casualties.
The rise of the Boko Haram generates concern within the international community, and yet that same community has allowed for the conditions conducive to such violence for years. Without addressing poverty in Nigeria, groups like the Boko Haram will continue to flourish.
– Erica Lignell