On April 15, 2014, over 230 female secondary school students were abducted at gun point from their school dormitory in the Nigerian town of Chibok. The students had just finished their final exams and, according to one of the roughly 50 who managed to escape, were abducted in the middle of the night by men who self-identified as members of the jihadist terror group Boko Haram. Following the attack, parents, relatives, and sympathetic strangers alike marched in protest of the perceived lack of concern for the missing students, expressing their anger against the Nigerian government for allowing the kidnapping to happen while the town was in a state of emergency and ostensibly under the protection of the army.
The protest in late April called the “Million Woman March” only attracted a few hundred demonstrators, but sympathy for the distressed families as well as outrage at the government’s slow response have extended across the globe. Apart from the protests in major Nigerian cities, students and Nigerian diaspora groups have rallied to raise awareness in urban centres like New York City, and smaller communities like Hamilton and Winnipeg.
At the end of April, Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan approached the international community for assistance, promising that Nigeria will overcome its security challenges. John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, condemned the attacks and promised to help bring the missing students back to their families, though without revealing a plan of action. In the meantime, President Jonathan arranged for a committee to work on a strategy for the girls’ safe return. Many Nigerians hope that this mass abduction, one of the boldest attacks on students by Boko Haram in Nigeria, will help spur the Nigerian government to proactively address the nation’s security challenges.
Ironically, the security measures put in place to prevent these kinds of attacks have not only failed to serve their intended purpose, but have also become an impediment to journalists and others who wish to investigate and report on the crisis. In the absence of adequate coverage, misinformation spreads easily: one army spokesperson publicly stated that most of the girls had been returned to their homes a day after the abduction. While that statement was hastily withdrawn, Nigerian First Lady Patience Goodluck Jonathan had several protest leaders arrested, alleging that the protesters themselves were Boko Haram terrorists who had made up the story about the abduction to ruin the reputation of the Nigerian government. One out of the two detained protest leaders was released immediately, but the very fact that the arrest took place is indicative of a lack of sincere concern about the fate of the abducted students.
Until this disaster receives more thorough media coverage – like that which covered the sinking of the Sewol ferry in South Korea around the same time – the truth will remain vulnerable to all kinds of reconfiguration.
Nigeria is one of the world’s largest oil-producing countries. It is also Africa’s fastest growing economy, and one of the most prosperous. Responding to these kinds of attacks with speed and sensitivity is one way the Nigerian government can help secure a peaceful and prosperous future for the country.