On Tuesday February 19, the Boko Haram Islamist Group struck a school in the town of Dapchi, located in northern Nigeria. The attack resonated strongly in the community because it was perpetrated by the same group that terrorized the town of Chibok in 2014, when militants dressed in military fatigues armed with machine guns stormed the Government Girls Science and Technical School, kidnapping an uncertain number of girls. The New York Times reported that fears were confirmed when 91 students and teachers were unaccounted for at a roll call the following day. The international news agency Reuters reported that the Nigerian military had rescued 76 of the students, two of those recovered were deceased, and the remaining 13 girls were still missing.
The attack was marked by confusion and ambiguity regarding the number of girls who had been kidnapped. Although the Nigerian government responded rapidly, with President Muhammadu Buhari declaring that a delegation would be sent to the region to, “ascertain the situation,” other politicians were not so kind. Recognizing the chilling parallels with the Chibok attack, not the least being the continuing silence between the girls and their parents, Nigerian Senator Ben Murray-Bruce in particular showed frustration saying, “I have a terrible sense of deja-vu. We can’t allow this to happen again.” If nothing else, this most recent attack reveals the continuing societal anxiety concerning Nigeria’s discontented and agitated northern regions.
The aftermath of this latest event reveals a number of truths about Nigerian society. While this particular story had a mostly positive ending, despite the tragic losses of life and the still missing students, it certainly foregrounds the continuing influence of Boko Haram in Nigerian politics. While it has been reported by the BBC that military forces have nominally reclaimed most of the territory taken by Boko Haram, the group still projects its influence through terrorist attacks, and has even attacked neighboring countries in the region.
Established in 2002, and beginning its military operations against the Nigerian state in 2009 to forge an Islamic State, Boko Haram’s name is derived from the regional Hausa language. The name is loosely translated as, “Western Education is Forbidden.” Their interpretation of Islam is such that they believe it is forbidden for Muslims to participate in any activity associated with Western ideals. As a result, schools and secular elections, even if they include and involve Muslims, are natural targets of the group. The increasingly violent nine year campaign waged by Boko Haram has even included a pledge of loyalty to the Islamic State. The increasingly international flavor of Boko Haram’s insurgency renders it even greater a threat in Nigeria and around the world. Boko Haram’s preferred targets, schools, are vital to the ongoing development of the Nigerian state, particularly as it attempts to diversify its fluctuating economy away from its currently oil-dominated status. Furthermore, the prosperity and social good that comes from educating women in particular is exactly what groups such as Boko Haram fear, and that is because an educated and critical populace is not desperate, therefore less likely to be recruited or fall victim to extremist groups. This is necessary to the successful and continuing development of the African continent as a whole, bringing it forward from its too often conflict-ridden and colonially destructive history.
The Nigerian government must be commended for its rapid deployment of its military to rescue the girls kidnapped from Dapchi. However, to truly degrade and destroy Boko Haram’s influence, they will need a different approach. An approach that focuses on education, substituting books for bombs. Extremist organizations are aware of this, and that is why they choose such innocent targets. The Nigerian government would do well to bolster security at schools in the north of Nigeria, to ensure that no student has a reason to fear their place of study. There is a sure path to a more peaceful and prosperous future in Nigeria, and that is through education.
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