The Chibok Abductions: This is Not an Episode of the A-Team

May 16, 2014

All lawful efforts must be made to locate the kidnapped girls and secure their safe release and the perpetrators of the attack must be brought to justice in an impartial court of law.

Sounds simple enough. But unlike the plot of an episode of an action drama, the reality on the ground is much more complex.

While we all hope for the girls to be freed and returned safely to their families, truth is that a rescue operation will only put a temporary band aid on much larger issues that will eventually generate copycat actions.

The people of Nigeria will continue to be at risk of abuses by armed groups like Boko Haram and their own government’s military forces alike. This raises serious questions of what kind of support should be given to the Nigerian government and its military as well as whether the U.S. government plans to rigorously monitor such security assistance.

This situation also demands a genuine global gut check of the commitment of the Nigerian authorities to clean up their act responsibly and rethink their approach following what is being universally condemned as a botched response to the abduction and to the Boko Haram insurgency.


If one were to start by asking the proverbial “what the hell is going on?” the answer would have to start with Boko Haram, of which surprisingly little is known apart from where they have struck, what their tactics are and what they purport to be fighting for. Amnesty International and other human rights groups have been documenting abuses perpetrated by them and raising concerns about their tactics going back to 2009, and the facts are brutal.

Even as people are appalled and outraged by the abduction of nearly 300 girls, the families of another 2,700 individuals have also lost loved ones as a result of Boko Haram’s tactics and those of the Nigerian security forces, and there has not been one trial or conviction of an alleged member of Boko Haram in the last 5 years. Surely those individuals also deserve justice if not a global campaign as has been generated on behalf of the Chibok girls to call for justice

Further complicating delusions of a comic-book type rescue mission is the record of the Nigerian authorities, who are and must be the lead on any response to Boko Haram. It’s taking place in their own backyard.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan vowed to crush Boko Haram in 2013. His government imposed a state of emergency in three states in northern Nigeria, created an information blackout, and unleashed a scorched earth campaign involving a reported 8,000 person military task force that also included local recruited civilian militias. There were reports of the use of helicopter gunships and jet fighters.

While it does not appear to have incapacitated Boko Haram very much, it has turned northern Nigeria into a nightmare of an internal armed conflict for people living there who are caught between a rock and a hard place.

The abuses by the Nigerian security forces are unfortunately nothing new. In a report on the ongoing practice of torture globally that was released this week, Amnesty International noted that:

“There is evidence of increasing use of torture in Nigeria. Amnesty International’s recent research indicates that police and military personnel routinely use torture to extract information and “confessions,” and to punish and exhaust detainees. In contravention of national and international law, information extracted by torture and ill-treatment is routinely accepted as evidence in court. The authorities apparently lack the political will to adhere to international human rights obligations.”

In 2013, Amnesty International reported on an increase in the size and activities of military detention centers where thousands of perceived Muslim men who were rounded up off the streets based on nothing more than being Muslim or appearing as such to the security forces, were taken and where they were tortured and ill-treated to the point that many of them did not come out alive.

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Concerns over the performance of the Nigerian security forces in northern Nigeria go back to 2009, with reports of unlawful executions, enforced disappearances, and deaths in military and police custody. On March 14, more than 600 people, mainly former detainees, were killed by security forces following an attack by Boko Haram on the military barracks in Maiduguri.

For the rest of West Africa, the United States and the global community, pushing the Nigerian government to re-think its strategy must become utmost priority, even as efforts to find the abducted girls continue. Key among the reforms that the country’s allies should be pushing for would be restoring the rule of law and accountability for abuses committed by the Nigerian military as well as for the abuses committed by members of Boko Haram.

All judicial proceedings must take place in an impartial court of law in line with international standards. Those kinds of reforms demand resources and leadership not by the U.S. Department of Defense, but by other arms of the United States government. The United States must also be fully transparent about the security assistance it is giving to ensure that it is does not fuel even more questionable human rights practices by the Nigerian government.

None of these are one-off, media-friendly solutions, but the sooner we realize what we need to do, the better chance we have of preventing more Boko Harams from emerging and deploying this terrible tactic again and again.

This is not an episode of the A-Team.