The impression one gets from this report – echoed by others in Nigeria and around the world – is that Boko Haram, while seeking “the oxygen of publicity”, has, with this particular incident, brought upon its own head such emotional revulsion that it will prove, in the long run, to have been a shot in the foot it has inflicted upon itself.
For one thing, Boko Haram has brought the might and expertise of the world’s most experienced terrorist-hunters on its trail. If the US could find – and slaughter – the al-Qaeda leader, Osama Bin Laden, then who does Abubakar Shekau think he is?
Shekau, the AK-47-totting leader of Boko Haram, has been engaging in mocking rants in videos (poorly patterned after those of Osama Bin Laden) that have horrified even Muslims who might have been expected to show Boko Haram a bit of sympathy.
On the contrary, Shekau’s sheer, maniacal barbarity, as he blithely boasts of “selling” the girls “at 12 or 9 years of age”, appears to have alienated him from some of his fellow jihadists around the world.
One contributor to a web forum used by Islamic militants complained that “such news [as the abduction of the girls] is spread to taint the image of the Mujahideen…” Another poster wrote in astonishment: “There is news that they attacked a girls’ school!… [They] may perhaps be killing too many non-combatants instead of armed enemies”. He prayed that God would hold Boko Haram adherents “steady to the path” of Islam. Many in the world – both Muslims and non-Muslims – will say “Amen” to that prayer.
For the government of President Goodluck Jonathan in Nigeria, the abduction of the schoolgirls has been an unmitigated disaster. The political crisis that the abduction has brought in its wake has exposed both Jonathan and his government as weak, vacillating and mendacious. For at first, a military spokesman told the media that all the girls had been rescued. Then the spokesman reversed himself and said his first statement was wrong!
President Jonathan himself was not heard speaking of the abduction for at least two weeks. When he did comment on it, he said he was grateful that none of the girls had been “harmed”. How did he know that? He didn’t say. But no sooner were the words out of his mouth than Abubakar Shekau released the video in which the girls were shown wearing hijabs and singing Islamic songs and reciting Koranic verses. Teenage Christian school girls had been reduced from chirpy individuals to a uniform mass of flesh potentially meant for the harem(s) of lechers, and the president said they had not been “harmed”?
In the course of the story being told, it emerged that Boko Haram once released some girls who had similarly been abducted. But two, who had become pregnant after being used as the playthings of the abductors, would not be accepted back into their society.
Was President Jonathan so insensitive that he did not recognise such personal disasters for women as constituting “harm”, or was he so ignorant of the norms by which some of the states in his country lived that he didn’t appreciate the potential harm that might afflict the girls – short of actual physical death? Either way, the president’s choice of words made him come out of the situation very badly indeed.
But that was not all. On 15 May, it was widely reported that President Jonathan would, at last, be travelling to Chibok the next day to see the survivors of the attack and the parents of the girls who were still missing. Better late than never, commentators said.
But come the day and what happened? The president’s office announced that he would not be going to Chibok after all. The leakage of his planned visit – by unauthorised personnel from the president’s office – had created a security risk which the president could not overlook!
Again, the president’s spin machine had let him down: obviously, the announcement of the visit must have been made, in good conscience, to assuage public feelings that the president was a callous person who was less than interested in the welfare of his fellow-citizens, made forlorn by the abduction of their beloved daughters or sisters.
And yet, the concerns for the security of his person were cogent enough, inasmuch as Boko Haram had shown itself to be an audacious and daring attacker in the past. In the confined space of a small village, Boko Haram could trigger a suicide incident in which, even if the president himself was not harmed, innocent people would most certainly lose their lives or limbs.
So, then, Boko Haram had won again – as far as the propaganda war was concerned. It was, in fact, harvesting the oxygen of publicity, in cylinderfuls.
The weaknesses shown by President Jonathan’s government are not in the interest of Africa as a whole. This is because Nigeria holds a unique position in Africa and the black world generally.