The poor, defenceless schoolgirls of Chibok have exposed a number of important things that have been in plain view for a while.
Karl Marx famously quipped that history repeats itself – first as tragedy, then as farce. In the Chibok kidnappings, many factors are at play.
Firstly: What is the point of African independence if we cannot organise our societies to protect our children? The poor, weak and vulnerable have rarely been protected from the predations of the dominant rich and powerful across our continent. Two hundred years ago, the trade in enslaved Africans revealed this on a dramatic scale.
Then as now, some of us appealed for outsiders to protect the vulnerable. Some of the loudest agitators (alongside humanist Britons) for the liberal intervention of the British Navy on the “slave” coast – were recently freed African Christian converts such as Rev. Ajayi Crowther.
For Crowther poor enslaved Africans needed saving from the twin evils of brutal plantation owners and from greedy heartless African rulers, and their corrupt and dysfunctional slave-based economies. Encouraged by these appeals, the British Navy used the bases it acquired in places like Lagos/Calabar (ostensibly for refuelling its ships) to eventually launch its total takeover and colonisation of what became Nigeria. Shocked by this development, the descendants of many of the self-same heartless African rulers reunited with their weak and poor compatriots in the anti-colonial struggle against the British.
Secondly: As the missing Malaysian airliner demonstrates, superior organisation and technology have their limitations. Deploying these against the insurgency in northern Nigeria holds no guarantees, as those offering help well know, which is why their experiences in Iraq/Afghanistan appeared equally as incompetent and flat-footed as the current Nigerian government’s efforts.
Most insurgencies (and indeed problems like colonialism) are actually solved by local people providing intelligence and turning against the insurgents. In the past when communities have informed on Boko Haram operatives, the revenge attacks have been ruthless, with the Nigerian state unable to offer protection. Boko Haram, despite its nihilistic tactics, is protected in parts of Northern Nigeria for ideological and other reasons. It is also well armed. Powerful local interests are guilty of financing the insurgency in a bid to control the presidency and Nigeria’s oil. These local oligarchs stash their looted funds financing this war, in western banks, while receiving additional financing from powerful external powers.
Thirdly: These external powers competing to intervene are not a homogenous group. The British Parliament that endorsed the naval patrols in 1807 was torn by warring interests, including a powerful slave-owning component. This traded off the Atlantic traffic but maintained the plantations system for another 30 years. Michelle Obama, before her celebrated radio address, stood in what looked like the Oval Office, and held up the now trending #bringbackourgirls. Was this a truly radical gesture directed to her husband, given that he had recently visited Saudi Arabia, to consolidate the US strategic partnership, with the principle country financing the global militant Islamism fuelling Boko Haram and destabilising the Sahel?
Nigeria and South Africa have in the forefront of resisting the US Africom bases spreading across Africa. Are there US military interests that now find it helpful that Nigeria has now been removed from the “resistance front” having been embarrassed into admitting US troops?
If Jonathan loses the elections in 2015 and the next insurgency begins, as promised, in the Niger Delta, will these Nigerian based American troops be deployed to the region or might the US be allowed to use drones on Nigerian soil to kill ordinary Nigerians as is the case in Pakistan and Afghanistan?
And finally, it is worth noting that despite the initial successes of the Royal Navy, the trafficking of Africans continued across the Atlantic until late into 1880s.