Five years ago, on April 14, 2014 Boko Haram fighters kidnapped 276 mainly Christian young women from their all girls secondary school in Chibok, in northeast Nigeria’s Borno state. It was the incident that brought Boko Haram to global attention, and with it, the movement’s then leader Abubakar Shekau.
Some 57 escaped that night, jumping from vehicles. Of the 219 held in captivity, 130 were shown in a video in May 2014, dressed in hijab and reciting the Qur’an as Shekau taunted the Nigerian government, military and Chibok families.
Another video obtained by CNN in April 2016 featured 15 schoolgirls. In May, one girl was found wandering the Sambisa Forest with her baby, having apparently escaped. Then in August 2016, a further video showed some 50 of the girls. In October 2016 there was finally good news – for some – with the release of a first group of 21 girls. A further 82 women were freed in May 2017. Currently, 112 girls are unaccounted for. Journalist Ahmad Salkida, who has contacts within the group, last year claimed that only 30 girls are still alive.
These are the numbers. They say little for the complex experience of young women held captive by Boko Haram, or – five years on – for what the incident, and the Nigerian response to it tells us about gender-based violence (GBV) and abductions in Nigeria’s northeast and the Lake Chad Basin region. This violence in ongoing, and manifest in different ways, with at times unexpected outcomes.
First, the Chibok women and others abducted have been instrumentalized in the story of Nigeria’s fight against Boko Haram.
Writing in February 2014, Jacob Zenn and I drew attention to what Barkindo and others had already noted: the tactic of abduction of women by Boko Haram. Abubakar Shekau was engaged in a tit-for-tat war with the Nigerian security services, who were taking female family members of jihadist leaders as hostages, a strategy that backfired, if it was aimed at stopping Shekau.
Control of women showed power over enemies, and fighters sought to reduce them to symbols of victory, as they always have. We sought to draw attention to women’s victimhood in this conflict, because violence against them was explicitly ordered by Shekau, even as at other times we have rightly recognized their agency and women’s support for Boko Haram.
Following Chibok, Boko Haram’s abduction of women was quickly integrated into Nigeria’s counter-insurgency rhetoric. In his May 2015 inaugural speech, President Muhammadu Buhari staked his presidency on the bringing back of the Chibok women. “We can not claim to have defeated Boko Haram without rescuing the Chibok girls and all other innocent persons held hostage by insurgents,” he said. By Christmas that year Buhari claimed to have “technically defeated” Boko Haram, despite ongoing violence.
The ‘rescue’ of thousands of women and children abducted by Boko Haram was an important part of the ‘winning’ narrative. Certainly, NGOs suggest the Chibok abductions were one event in the capture of thousands of young women across Nigeria’s northeast, Cameroon, Niger and Chad.
In February 2018 Nigeria’s Minister of Defence said troops had rescued some 30,000 people, mainly women and children, from the Sambisa Forest in two years. We should have scepticism about the figure. The Nigerian Army and Multi-National Joint Task Force (MJNTF) have had successes against Boko Haram. But as well as freeing people from insurgent camps, Nigerian troops have also been clearing civilians from areas of insecurity and moving them to camps for internally displaced persons (IDP camps), many of them nothing to do with Boko Haram.
Second, while the rescue narrative implies a happy ending for those moved to IDP camps after military clearances, this is not the case. West African jihadists may routinely abduct and rape women, but they do not have the monopoly on GBV. There are multiple reports of the sexual abuse and exploitation of women and children in IDP camps.
Nigeria’s story of rescue masks an uncomfortable truth: abuse of women is endemic, and often carried out with impunity by those whose job it is to protect. What is more, Buhari’s claim of the technical defeat of Boko Haram was first made in December 2015, yet the ‘rescues’ have kept coming.
Third, the accounts of abducted women betray the difficulty of straightforward accounts of victimhood and agency – the ability to make choices for oneself – in this insurgency.
In a 2018 video, a number of alleged “Chibok girls” were shown explaining they did not want to return home. They had Boko Haram husbands, children now. NGOs and journalists have repeatedly heard similar stories from women now in camps for internally displaced persons. Women who would rather return to insurgent camps.
This is a story familiar from other conflict. When the Lord’s Resistance Army captured minors as fighters in Uganda, through systematic indoctrination, many eventually became converts to the group, even as they were also victims. In war, boundaries between victim and perpetrator are often blurred. This dynamic and its gender aspect need to be considered in Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration efforts, as in psychological support.
Fourth, men are also the victims of GBV by Jihadist groups. If women find husbands they care for in jihadist camps, this should not surprise us. Boko Haram has always abducted – and killed – men and boys, as well as women and girls. It has forced many males to fight in its ranks. Men and women within Boko Haram may share the same experience of abduction and abuse.
Fifth, and despite splits in Boko Haram in 2016 and 2018, partly as a result of arguments about the correct treatment of women in jihad, abductions continue. Zenn and I detail abduction patterns in a forthcoming article for CTC Sentinel.
We note they are spread across Nigeria’s northeast, and into the Lake Chad Basin region, and include areas associated with both Shekau’s faction Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (JAS), and with that of the al-Baghdadi-affiliated Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), led by Shekau until August 2016, when Islamic State ordered his removal.
Both women and men are targeted across regions. They are exploited to different ends, whether paraded as slaves as in Shekau’s videos of captured women, or to demonstrate ‘mercy,’ and appeal to local Muslim audiences, as in the case of ISWAP’s abductions of more than a hundred mainly Muslim schoolgirls in Dapchi, Yobe state, in 2018. The only Christian, Leah Sharibu, remains a captive, having refused to convert.
Finally, the case of the Chibok abductions reveals the fundamental power of terrorism: to produce widespread fear. Following the kidnapping of Chibok schoolgirls, and the onset of suicide bombing, also involving young women, rumours spread that the Chibok girls had been ‘turned.’ Women freed from Boko Haram camps talked of seeing the girls carrying weapons. People in villages said the Chibok girls came in the night to carry out attacks. There wasno evidence for this, but it made for a powerful story.
Equally powerful, however, are the stories of the many Nigerian women, active against gender-based violence, whoever it is by. Who have campaigned for #BBOG and other groups, to ensure those abducted are not forgotten. Who work to help and support those freed from Boko Haram, or to understand its violence. They demand justice in the courts, so far lacking, for victims of Boko Haram’s sexual violence.
Women activists have faced arrest and challenge, but they carry on nonetheless. They continue to draw attention to the fate of the remaining 112 women missing from Chibok, and the many others too. It is important, not just for Chibok, but for the future of Nigeria, that those taken captive are not forgotten. Ending GBV is as important as ending the insurgency, in which it is an intrinsic part.
Dr. Elizabeth Pearson is a Lecturer at the Cyber Threats Research Centre (CyTReC), specialising in gender, extremism, and how to counter extremism. Elizabeth has an interest in offline and online and their intersections. She has worked with VOX-Pol, the EU’s online extremism research network, conducting research on gender in ISIS-supporting communities on Twitter.
She studied for her PhD in War Studies at King’s College London, where she explored gender in both Islamist and radical right movements in the UK through field research and interviews with activists. Elizabeth is also an Associate Fellow at RUSI and has carried out research for the London-based think tank examining attitudes to both Violent Extremism and Countering Violent Extremism in the UK, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Canada.
Elizabeth maintains a dataset of female suicide bombing in West Africa and has an interest in issues of gender in relation to ‘Boko Haram’. She has worked with the European Union Technical Assistance to Nigeria’s Evolving Security Challenges (EUTANS) and with RUSI on CVE delivery in Nigeria.`
Before academia, Elizabeth spent more than fifteen years with BBC radio where she worked in production, reporting and feature-making, mainly for BBC Radio Four.
Follow her on Twitter @lizzypearson
All views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of The Defense Post.
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