California Forum

Our attention strayed from missing Nigerian girls for too long

Singer Alicia Keys, second from right, joins “Bring Back Our Girls” protesters at the Nigerian consulate in New York on Tuesday, marking the six-month anniversary of the kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram militants.
Singer Alicia Keys, second from right, joins “Bring Back Our Girls” protesters at the Nigerian consulate in New York on Tuesday, marking the six-month anniversary of the kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram militants. The Associated Press

Nigerian military officials now say that more than 200 girls abducted in April by the heavily armed Boko Haram rebels will be returned.

That’s encouraging news because despite the early media attention, high-level appeals, negotiations and tracking, only a handful of have escaped their abductors so far.

Six months after the hashtag diplomacy campaign #BringBackOurGirls hit its zenith with a White House photo appeal by First Lady Michelle Obama, Twittering was seemingly the only sustained activity highlighting these schoolgirls’ plight. International attention is fickle and solutions never easy.

While the girls and their jihadist kidnappers were missing, their only sign of life was an occasional taunting YouTube video from Boko Haram’s leaders to remind us of the complexity of taking international action against the guerrilla group.

Girls at school one otherwise normal day ended up in the back of a truck, diverted from their classrooms and studies – guilty only of being free and inquisitive – and were suddenly enslaved, subjected to forced sex and threatened execution.

Girls just like the ones in any American suburban mall this weekend. Girls like President Barack Obama’s, as Michelle said when joining the campaign: “In these girls, Barack and I see our own daughters. We see their hopes, their dreams, and we can only imagine the anguish their parents are feeling right now.”

Targeting schoolgirls is especially pernicious given the relatively paltry number of girls in school worldwide. This year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai champions the right of gender equality education in her native Pakistan and beyond, recognizing that two-thirds of all illiterate adults are women. Boko Haram roughly means “education is sinful.”

In confronting Islamic extremism, the West not only fights against forces opposing female education, we are fighting against those who have declared war against civilization itself.

The frustrations are many in this war against a small, mobile and nearly untraceable force of committed and fanatical jihadis. Fighting them is unlike fighting a war against a state or an organized and identifiable army in a fixed place or on a battlefront. It is a guerrilla war against a ghost force striking anyone, anywhere, anytime.

Though small in numbers, they attack ruthlessly, disregarding any wartime rules. Geneva Conventions be damned; civilians are the new combatant targets – the more vulnerable, the better – with a higher symbolic value than faceless, professional soldiers who understand and accept war’s risks.

In this new normal, the most important terrorist target is the civilian. Girls and journalists are highly valued targets as they are both unarmed and active on social media, aiding terrorists to propagate a political cause by fueling fear.

Victims in this tragedy are subjected to the worst imaginable pressure and exploitation, both mental and physical. Boko Haram sees itself as part of the wider war being waged against our more tolerant, diverse, and liberal Western societies – against us, really, calling us “infidels.”

Boko Haram is fighting the same ruthless war being fought today inside Syria and Iraq under the same black flag of religious intolerance and extremism.

Now, the girls are reportedly coming home. I admit that I lost track of them. I did not recollect if they had been returned, exchanged, killed, or sold. My ignorance is unsettling; this was an issue that in the spring seemed as urgent and important as the Ebola virus, the Syrian town of Kobani, Kim Jong-un’s health, or the November elections are now.

But the reports of their potential return brought me back to those girls, probably because I have my own kids.

Parental empathy – it is what motivated Michelle Obama to take that picture and speak out. That high-level attention helped activate the United States to send 80 soldiers to Chad to help Nigeria track and rescue the missing girls. The first lady’s public concern also made it feel as if the issue was somehow going to keep a sustained focus on the problem until its resolution.

Focusing citizen attention and garnering public support requires leaders to spend political capital, make tough decisions and take action. A leader’s credibility is defined not only by a commitment made, but a word kept. If the girls are released, it will be a success story at a time when there are seemingly more international problems than solutions.

Hashtag diplomacy for the Nigerian girls had to be more than just a fashionable celebrity ice bucket challenge from which we moved beyond quickly because of our inattention or diversion. When Malala makes her way to Norway to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, her presence should remind the world of the abducted Nigerian schoolgirls who were just trying to make their way to class.

Markos Kounalakis is a research fellow at Central European University and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at markos@stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @KounalakisM.

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