London, January 10, 2015—While world leaders and throngs of French people gathered in Paris to stand against terrorism, in faraway Nigeria, almost unprecedented acts of terror were taking place.
The horrific deaths in France at the Charlie Hebdo magazine offices and a Jewish grocery store, along with the shooting death of a woman cop unleashed a torrent of defiance, with demonstrators and Tweeters brandishing the note of defiance, “Je Suis Charlie”—“I Am Charlie.”
No one is holding up signs saying “I Am Nigerian,” though it would be right and proper. In recent days, reports of astounding massacres have emerged from northeast Nigeria. Up to 2,000 villagers have been killed by Boko Haram, the vicious extreme Islamic rebel group. Amnesty International has chronicled the latest atrocities here.
Boko Haram has been blowing up markets, churches and bus stations, raiding schools, and killing people at taverns and other public places since 2009. Recently, the group made worldwide headlines by kidnapping 219 girls from a school in Chibok town. Despite outrage expressed in the Twittersphere—remember the BringBackOurGirls hashtag campaign?—most of them are still missing; some have been auctioned off at slave sales. In June, 2012, long before the Kouachi brothers assaulted Charlie Hebdo, a Boko Haram suicide car bomber blew off the front of the ThisDay newspaper in Abuja, the Nigerian capital.
The world press has little covered Boko Haram, in part with the remoteness of the area where they operate and the danger of getting anywhere near the group. Despite the recent violence in Paris, it is a far, far safer place for reporters, or anyone else, than Maiduguri, a city in Nigeria’s Boko Haram heartland.
Boko Haram, whose name means “Western education is a sin,” wants to set up an Islamic state. Among its tactics has been to drive Christians and followers of other religions out of the northern region.
I worked on a report for Human Rights Watch published in 2012 that took me to Maiduguri and a few other cities where Boko Haram had struck. It was scary and difficult to find witnesses because they were fearful that, by speaking out on atrocities, they would attract Boko Haram’s wrath.
I also discovered one key reason for the persistence of Boko Haram: the cruelty, corruption and ineptitude of Nigeria’s security forces. Since 2009, the government has overseen joint army-police task forces to battle Boko Haram. Shootouts raids on neighborhoods and villages, roadblocks and large-scale arrests characterize the campaign. It has all been largely ineffective. Heavy handed raids and random killing by security forces are common. Arbitrary arrests and disappearances are the norm and the entire justice system seem incapable of dealing with the situation. Despite the gravity of the situation, security forces find time to shake down local residents.
In 2013, HRW documented the razing of more than 2,000 houses in the town of Baga, along the border. HRW said the security forces “engaged more in destruction than in protection.”
These chronic abuses destroy any trust in authorities and, of course, drive recruitment to Boko Haram. Here’s the report, and I think the section on the history of the struggle is particularly relevant. Unfortunately, the title “Spiraling Violence” proved to be particularly prescient. Last Saturday, someone from Boko Haram strapped a bomb belt to a ten year old girl’s body and sent her to a market in Maiduguri. At least 20 people died in the blast.
HRW has assessed that Boko Haram was likely guilty of crimes against humanity. I think by now there is no doubt. But who will bring them to justice?