why strategy in Northeastern Nigeria needs to shift from the state to the people

Written for and published by Ventures Africa back in early December. Since then, the government has declared mission accomplished up in the NE. Hmmm….

We have under a month left before peace and security reign in the North East of Nigeria. Or so President Muhammadu Buhari would have us believe. Since assuming office, the President has repeatedly pledged to defeat Jama’atu Ahlis Sunnah Lida’awati wal Jihad (JAS), commonly known as Boko Haram, by December. Although this deadline is quickly approaching, and the Chief of Defence Staff recently confirmed Operation Lafiya Dole is on course to meet this target, it doesn’t appear that it’s time to start the countdown just yet.

During his inauguration announcement, Buhari started to outline his strategy for defeating JAS by stating plans to move the Command Centre to Maiduguri. He later appointed service chiefs with knowledge of the region, increased troop presence and intensified army action. While Buhari’s actions show his commitment to ending the violence and this increased focus and political will is welcome, saying the conflict may be over by the end of December seems wildly optimistic at best.

Many people view these pronouncements with profound skepticism. Timelines for military victory are notoriously difficult to predict. Setting a firm deadline and focusing strategy on military action also shows poor understanding of the nature of the conflict. We are no longer fighting wars where states fight to control territory, but rather battles where opposing forces struggle to gain people’s allegiances to their side. This means a step change in thinking is needed to bring about sustainable peace and security to the region. Fundamentally, the administration needs to make people believe it cares about them and puts their interest first. Moving military strategy from merely fighting JAS to a holistic people-centred approach is not just better for the individuals and communities, but is crucial for operational effectiveness and mission success.

Indeed, given the average insurgency of this sort typically lasts around fifteen years, it proves imperative not to make grandiose claims highly likely to fail. These statements will be seen as the PR tricks they are. Nigeria needs to learn from its own experiences as well as those of other countries if the people of the North East, and those elsewhere in the country who have experienced violence, are to stop suffering. The government must tackle the frustration at inequality, corruption and human rights abuses that drive recruitment into JAS, rather than aiming solely to kill JAS fighters.

The peoples of the North East have suffered greatly over the past few years. In 2014, Nigeria recorded the second highest number of deaths related to terrorism worldwide after Iraq, with 7,512 people killed and JAS noted as the group associated with the most fatalities globally. Although not all of these people killed lived in the North East, the region has seen some of the most intense violence in Nigerian history. An estimated 15,000 civilians have been killed in the region in total. JAS abducted at least 2,000 women and girls between the start of 2014 and April 2015. Boys too have been abducted, forced to join the group and killed in their beds, as in Buni Yadi in February 2014. Over 2.2 million people have been displaced from their homes. With increasing numbers of people fleeing violence and a lack of systematic support, there is a heightening emergency, with concerns around how people will have enough to eat. In recent weeks we have seen attacks on mosques during prayer time and a potential escalation in bomb blasts detonated by female and male suicide bombers against a background of intensifying military action.

Unfortunately, even though most people believe JAS is the one that has perpetrated the majority of harm to them and their families, they also feel the impact of security force action. There is mutual distrust between security agencies and communities. Agencies tend to assume all civilians are potential JAS members and act accordingly. Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) spoke to civilians in Adamawa, Bauchi, Borno, Gombe and Yobe. Their recent report found security forces have failed to protect vulnerable communities from violence and failed to prevent collateral damage during counter JAS operations.

Security forces have directly targeted civilians with unlawful detention, harassment, destruction of property, sexual violence, indiscriminate targeting of certain groups such as young men, torture, and excessive use of force causing injury and death. The CIVIC report is the latest in many reports to show how security forces have unlawfully killed, arrested suspects without cause and held people in detention without safeguards against murder, torture and ill-treatment. For example, more than 7,000 people, mainly men and boys, died in military detention between March 2011 and June 2015.

Although overlooked and under-reported, there are also reports that security forces are engaging in sexual harassment, exploitation, abuse and violence of women and girls. Friends in Maiduguri tell me of soldiers ‘misusing our girls’ with women and girl hawkers in particular at risk. For example, in their report, CIVIC published the account of a student who saw a military official raping a young female hawker.

In addition to these abuses, slow response also encourages mistrust between security agencies and communities. Both civilians and security officials believe security agencies are deployed only to defeat JAS, not to protect civilians. The military has either done nothing or been slow to act when communities have raised the alarm about potential attacks or asked for assistance in their aftermath.

What happened around the abductions from Chibok in April 2014 is symptomatic of this. People in other communities have also detailed potential targets, such as unprotected schools, abandoned checkpoints and unresponsive security forces when needed. Communities are suspicious this delay is due to JAS fighters’ infiltration of security forces. There are also rumours that politicians and senior military officials are financing JAS.

These dynamics risk alienating the population, meaning people are unlikely to either come to officials with security concerns or help military actions. This leads to further danger of radicalising the population. If communities feel victimised by security forces, they are likely to obstruct operations or even to support JAS.

It is important to retool military strategy to gain the trust and support of communities enduring the most of the violence. People in the North East are the primary victims and survivors of JAS attacks, Nigerian military abuses and the actions of forces of neighbouring states. People feel violence by JAS has intensified due to security forces’ aggressive campaign, which has not only failed to protect civilians but also caused significant direct and indirect harm.

The government may succeed in reclaiming all territory by the end of December. But this is not the same as ‘defeating’ JAS. The group has shown it is capable of morphing to adapt to changing dynamics. After Mohammed Yusuf was killed, the sect dispersed. The military thought that killing its leader was enough to deal with the threat. In 2013, nobody would have believed JAS would attempt to hold territory and succeed. The consensus was that there would never be suicide attacks in the country: people thought Nigerians love life too much. Sadly, developments over the years show how false these assumptions were.

Without addressing the root causes of why JAS exists and what is driving recruitment into the sect, it is likely that, come January 2016, JAS will merely mutate into something new. For example, we may see an uptick in bomb blasts and suicide attacks. Unfortunately, we seem to have become inured to bombs going off in Abuja, Adamawa, Borno, Kaduna, Kano, Plateau and Yobe – but attacks may start taking place outside the ‘usual’ areas. Alternatively, JAS may pursue a strategy of infiltrating government, business and civic life, as Al Shabab have done in Somalia.

In thinking through how to deal with the situation, we would do well to remember why JAS was so popular in the first place. A protest movement against corruption perceived by followers as resisting inequities and injustices of ‘Western’ governance, its call for a return to a ‘purer’ way that Islam was seen to offer, had support from many in the general population. This is the reason why so many people in Borno have at least one family member who is or was a member. Furthermore, President Buhari himself in his inaugural address noted the extra-judicial murder of Mohammed Yusuf by the security forces was influential in its rise.

The history of the armed forces in Nigeria has been one of protecting the state not the people. Sixteen years after the transition to democracy, this needs to change. The focus should now be on human security not state security. This means ensuring security forces act above reproach, follow human rights and humanitarian principles in all operations and address frustrations at inequality and corruption as well as trying to gain military victory. As the military steps up, it is important to remember what, or rather who, it is fighting for and keep its eyes on the prize. After all, success means not just winning the hearts and minds of the population but safeguarding their very lives and well-being as well.


women, disability and conflict – why we should say and do more

The number of documents I have read on the experiences of women and girls with disabilities during times of conflict and violence in all my years of peacebuilding do not take even two hands to count. And I have gone looking for them. This lack of evidence is one of the main reasons why I am so happy to have been involved in the study What Violence Means to Us: Women With Disabilities Speak. Led by women with disabilities themselves, this research examines the situation for women in Plateau, one of Nigeria’s most conflict affected states.

Grace Jerry (one of the report’s co-authors) and I discuss research findings in this recording.

We also wrote conflict deepens dangers and worsens exclusion for women with disabilities for The Guardian:

Conflict can be both a cause of disability and a devastating complication for those already living with disabilities. Although all disabled people are affected, women face intersecting discrimination because of their gender and disability.

There is little research on the experiences of women and girls living with disability in conflict. To fill this gap, Inclusive Friends, a disability rights organisation, and the Nigeria Stability and Reconciliation Programme studied the implications of violence for women and girls living with disability in Plateau state, where there has been sporadic violence along ethno-religious lines and between farmers and pastoralists for the past 15 years.

Women with disabilities led and participated in the research, which found that women’s experiences during conflict were an extension of the difficulties they lived with during peace time.

Daily life for those with disabilities in Plateau, and elsewhere in Nigeria, is bleak. Families rarely send disabled children to school and many keep them indoors to protect them or to hide them. Women said healthcare is often inaccessible – physically, financially and because staff have little knowledge of how to manage care for patients with disabilities. Workplaces are also inaccessible: many employers presume that disabled women have poor intellectual skills, and customers may be reluctant to buy goods from them.

Violent conflict exacerbates this reality. Women with disabilities find it difficult to flee violence and are often left behind. The study found that in one village in Riyom, members of the community locked all those who were elderly or had disabilities in a room before an attack; but the room was set on fire when the attackers came.

People with hearing impairments might not hear warnings, gunshots and sounds of others running away, and so remain behind, in danger. People with visual impairments might not know what is happening, exactly where they are, or how to escape. We heard of visually impaired women who were deliberately left in unsafe areas. We also heard of women who mistakenly ran towards the attackers and were raped and killed.

The family of Godiya* left her behind when violence broke out. Unable to walk, she tried to crawl along the ground to escape. But then she fell into a river and almost drowned before someone walking by rescued her. She told us she still wonders what would have happened to her had the passer-by not come to her aid.

Even when they are able to escape, women with disabilities might have to leave behind mobility aids, such as wheelchairs, medicine and hearing aids. This can lead to long-term health consequences and restrict their independence. If their caregivers have left the area, the women may become completely dependent on others.

Camps for internally displaced people (IDP) are often difficult to navigate for those with mobility problems or other disabilities. We have heard of men forcing disabled women and girls to have sex with them in exchange for “help” getting food and water. In the Jos North district, 15 out of 35 women with disabilities spoke of violations in IDP camps.

During peace and conflict, women and girls with disabilities are more likely to experience gender-based violence but are less likely to be able to escape, speak up, to be believed, or to access services. Globally, women with disabilities aretwice as likely to experience domestic violence and up to three times more likely to be raped by a stranger or acquaintance.

Because women with disabilities rely on those in power, the risks of sexual violence and abuse are greater. When asked to identify perpetrators of violence, most of the women we interviewed named caregivers and family members – followed by security agents. We heard of female students experiencing violence from those charged with helping them. In one case, a student who was supposed to be helping a visually impaired woman to transcribe her notes raped her. She became pregnant and had to drop out of university.

When Uhuam* went into labour, her family were shocked and confused, as she had been confined to a room in the family home. They later found out that a male neighbour had sneaked in when no one was around and raped her. During our research, we heard from girls with mental and intellectual disabilities whose parents had injected them with contraceptive implants in case men raped them.

Godiya and Uhuam were among many women who felt that no one was helping them. They said they were not included in existing projects, and definitely did not benefit from programmes designed for them. Most said they received no assistance from community leaders or social services. When we spoke to people working in civil society, almost four-fifths said their organisations had no programmes to mitigate violence against women with disabilities.

The main reason decision-makers do not take these realities and needs into account is because women with disabilities are not involved in policymaking. Although there is increasing recognition of the need to put women at the centre of peace and security efforts, women and girls with disabilities are rarely included explicitly.

This general exclusion leads to further marginalisation, and undermines any hope of maximising their unique perspectives, skills and talents. Worldwide, people with disabilities are the world’s largest minority, making up 15% of the global population, or one billion people. Three-quarters of people with disabilities in low and middle-income countries are women.

As development, security, peacebuilding and women’s rights activists, professionals and officials, we need to start thinking about women with disabilities when designing and implementing laws, policies and interventions. Our work has to protect, empower and include them. If we do not, we are failing.

The report is available to read here.

bombs ready to explode? unearthing the relationship between Africa’s youth, unemployment and violence

At the top of my list of lazy assumptions people make about peace and security that I hate (should really create that list one day) is that violence is caused by high numbers of ‘idle youth.’ I wrote this for Ventures Africa examining the extent to which it is true.

A hungry man is an angry man.’

This phrase is often used to connect youth unemployment, poverty and violence. A dire warning, it is meant to act as a call to action. But, is there any evidence to prove this link exists?

Half the current population of Sub-Saharan Africa is under 25 years old. In Somalia, 62.9 percent of the population is under 24. The median age in Nigeria is 14.

A country with more people of working age can be good for the economy and development. However, rather than viewing these demographic changes as positive, there seems to be an unyielding anxiety of what this ‘youth bulge’ could mean in terms of peace and security.

After all, high economic growth, seen in many African countries, has not led to job creation. This is true in Nigeria where the last decade has seen both economic growth of 7 percent and double the rate of unemployment. At the same time, modernity and globalization have increased the gap between the hopes of young people and their realities. Once you see how others are living, you tend to be less satisfied with your own lot in life. Adding to this, state and non-state institutions have weakened and are struggling to cope. These changes are taking place against a backdrop of increased insecurity and violence, with young people at the center of these conflicts.

The combination of these factors has led to oversimplified assumptions about the relationship between increased youth populations, high unemployment and violence.

“People say that young unemployed people cause armed conflict,” said Kimairis Toogood of International Alert, a peace building organisation. ‘They say this without any nuance, without looking at the different factors contributing to youth frustration and grievances and without any evidence backing this up.”

‘Youth’ have become a threat and a source of worry. ‘Idle youth’ are seen as ticking time bombs, ready to be activated at any moment. They form a ‘ready pool of recruits’ for armed movements and criminality alike. They are a problem waiting to happen. This narrative has led to panic, with politicians scrambling to come up with solutions (or at least claiming to do so).

It is understandable why people think this way. After all, we have seen many violent groups and gangs across the continent made up largely of young people. With only an estimated 16 percent of young people across Sub-Saharan Africa employed in waged jobs in the formal sector, unemployment seems a likely cause of why they join these groups. As Ms. Toogood said, “They cite any civil war and say ‘see all those young boys with guns? They were probably unemployed.’ And then it’s done. People don’t want to take the time to ask nuanced questions. People are generally too lazy to do that.”

Indeed, this way of thinking has a fundamental flaw. Study after study says there is no evidence to support this assumed correlation. A review of research on the topic found no evidence on the effect of creating jobs on stability for countries with a history of violence. For example, support for the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (commonly referred to as the Taliban) did not decrease in Afghanistan once young people found jobs. In Somalia too, young people getting jobs did not lead to decreased support for armed groups.

It seems that, although unemployment can cause frustration and marginalisation, it is not the only reason young people join violent groups. Indeed, research finds young people take up the gun not because they are poor, but because they are angry. It is these experiences of injustice that drive involvement in political violence, not poverty. These dynamics are heightened by failures of the state.

“We need to acknowledge the heterogeneity of youth,” said Ms. Toogood. She noted that grievances which, lead to youth involvement in conflict are diverse and linked to many socio-economic and political factors. “It is more about systemic, structural inequalities that are institutionalized. These trump whether a young person is employed or not,” she said.

Grace Jerry, Executive Director of Inclusive Friends, a disability rights organisation in Plateau, agreed. She talked to me about the realities for young people with disabilities. “When people are marginalised for too long, they become perpetrators of violence. They want to just break free. They want to do something. They want to prove a point,” she said.

Indeed, while young people can accept unemployment- corruption, discrimination, feeling cheated or humiliated and abuse by security agencies leads to them feeling angry. Given the wide gap between the rich and the poor, young people see the differences between their lives and those of the elite, rich or connected. While others attend good schools and are provided jobs, they struggle to survive, are cheated by employers and harassed by the state.

Indeed being automatically judged as potential threats can heighten feelings of frustration and alienation. As Ms. Toogood said, “It makes them constantly perceived as ‘perpetrators’ by the system and those in power and also the victim at the same time.”

After all, most young people do work. They cannot afford not to. They need to feed themselves and their families. However, working in farming or the informal sector, they are not necessarily engaged in what people view as ‘jobs.’ Despite the money they earn and the hours they work, they themselves say they are ‘unemployed.’

David drives a taxi when he does not ‘have work’ in the hotel service industry in which he gets temporary work. Although he earns money when he drives, he does not consider this as real work. He sees this rather as a short term measure for economic survival. He talked about how this kind of work is looked down upon by family and friends.

As a result of this kind of thinking, young people spend years ‘technically’ unemployed without achieving recognition or status despite substantial contribution to their families and communities.

This gap between aspiration and reality is heightened by the barriers and challenges they face while engaged in these precarious jobs.

For example, despite the employment okada riding creates – revenues for government, income for those engaged in repairs and cheaper cost of trading – okada riders are often viewed as irresponsible, (potential) criminals, earning money only to buy alcohol and drugs. In both Ghana and Nigeria, research found no evidence for the link between okada riding and criminality. However, many places have banned okadas, especially in cities, tarring all riders with the brush of a small minority. Not only has this destroyed the livelihoods of millions of young people and their families across Africa but it has added to the transport costs of those now struggling to afford alternative forms of transportation.

Street traders and hawkers too have been instrumental to economic growth, particularly that of cities across the continent. In recent times, more young people have joined the older women who make up the majority of traders. However, they too complain of challenges: evictions, ongoing harassment, abuse of authority and extortion. According to David, “you need to know how to avoid the police but sometimes, you just cannot escape and get caught.”

By seeing young people as threats, we fail to see these realities.

The youth necessitates violence narrative also means that ‘youth’ becomes shorthand for ‘young able-bodied men’. All the programmes and politicians focusing on trying to create jobs for them often ignore the marginalisation and disenfranchisement young women and young people with disabilities experience.

After all, frustration with inequality and difficulties providing for families are reasons young women as well as young men join armed groups. In recent months, women’s involvement in Jama’atu Ahlis Sunnah Lida’awati Wal Jihad (JAS), commonly known as Boko Haram, has hit the headlines due to the number of women carrying out suicide attacks. This is just one example of the ways in which women play direct and indirect roles in all conflicts, from taking part in the violence themselves to encouraging others to do so.

Ms. Jerry talked of the anger that builds up when a young person with disability sees others getting opportunities that are blocked to them because of their disability. They notice others looking at their disability first rather than their skills or expertise and what they can contribute. “A youth in that situation will become angry. And when they get angry, they become violent. In some situations, you can’t blame them. They have been marginalised. They have been left out for way too long,” she explained.

She told me of an incident where community members were shocked that a person with a disability was among those who committed violence. “When he was asked why he did that, he said he wanted to prove a point. ‘They think I can’t kill. They think I can’t carry a gun? Well, let me prove to them.’ He had been marginalised for too long and he needed to do something” she said.

People also often fail to see the realities of young men in context. In many contexts, being ‘a man’ means providing for families, being married and generous with the community. Achieving these signs is often hard, particularly in contexts of corruption, inequality and marginalisation. Although these routes to manhood may be blocked, the pressures on young men do not decrease. Many young men are trapped in places where they are no longer ‘children’ but they are not ‘adults’ either. Violence may be seen as a source of addressing this frustration to gain respect and be seen as ‘a man.’

An un-interrogated narrative ignores these structural factors. It also shifts responsibility from the powerful and influential in society, including governments, and displaces it to the vulnerable. After all, it is older, richer men that send the young and poor to die in their battles for power and supremacy. Young people may be the majority in many countries but are on the fringes of society. They are low in societal hierarchies compared to their elders – but they see these same people who they are expected to respect taking opportunities meant for them for their own ends.

James is studying part time while he works so he can support his family now and provide better in the future. His wife has just given birth to their second child. “It’s not the youth, it’s the rich men,” he said. “Look at my community. For the last year, people have not been living there because of the conflict. The politicians sponsor the fighting because they want control over the oil that is there.”

The panic around ‘idle youth’ blames young people for violence rather than seeing the needs and interests invested in their mobilization. It also ignores the reality that not all young people are violent. Many of them work for peace and the development of their communities.

Mariya collects food and clothing from people in her community to distribute to those who have been internally displaced due to violence. She has been doing this for the last two years. She said, “They live in our community. I have to do whatever I can to help them.” She also solves disputes, acting as an informal mediator, and reaches out to girls who have experienced violence.

Chukwuma has just started a computing center in his town. It is a place where people can come to surf the internet or learn how to use a computer. He runs classes free of cost for children, making a particular effort to reach out to those from poorer families. He tells me about his excitement in doing this work, knowing the potential of computing skills to create opportunities for young people in today’s technological world.

Mariya and Chukwuma are working for the wellbeing of their communities. They help people learn and live in peace. People seldom think of those like them – or like David and James – when they think of youth.

Trying to prevent violence by focusing on youth unemployment treats the symptom not the cause. It stigmatises and scapegoats young people, further adding to their marginalisation. Evidently, even employing all youth would not necessarily curtail violence if fundamental issues of inequality and injustice remain unaddressed.

Preventing young people from choosing violence requires addressing difficult issues. These include improving security, creating meaningful educational and employment opportunities, rooting out corruption and tackling prejudice. Taking action on these areas is much more difficult than simply creating jobs, but it is also much more effective.

After all, an angry man (or woman) may be more likely to be involved in violence – but it’s not hunger alone that makes people angry.

in northern Nigeria, the streets are open… just not for women

Again, I am woefully behind on keeping this site updated with what I have written. Back in June, I wrote this piece for Ventures Africa on the gendered dynamics of street work. It starts in Nasarawa with a scene I saw while observing elections there in April and ends in Kaduna. However, the situation for women working on the streets is similar beyond these states – and indeed beyond northern Nigeria.

People around me initially dismissed my concern. ‘These people are always fighting, they’re like that.’ It was only when he had his hands around her neck that they moved to intervene. He ran off as we approached, leaving her in a torn dress with her mangoes scattered at her feet.

When I spoke with Maryam (not her real name), she told me she had been walking down the street selling mangoes when this young man started talking and flirting with her. A few minutes into their conversation, angered by something she said, he dashed her mangoes to the floor. Worried about what her parents would say when she came home with neither mangoes nor money, she tried to get him to pay for the mangoes he had damaged. He refused and, when she continued to insist, the physical fight between them ensued.

Onlookers gave her the money to cover the damage, admonishing her that she should be in school at her age, not selling things on the street. Of course, as she told me, her family has no money for her education and relies on the income she brings in through hawking. Maryam is 14 years old and has been hawking for years. This is not the first time something like this has happened to her, but this time she was particularly worried as to how she would explain away the tear in her dress, so large that it exposed her entire shoulder, when she got home.

This happened in Lafia, in Nasarawa state, but the same scene could have taken place anywhere in the country.

Women in Nigeria earn just 62.7 percent of the wages that men earn. Every year, 6 million young people enter the labour market but only 10 percent of them are able to find jobs in the formal sector. Just one third of these 10 percent are women. However, research shows that nearly all women are involved in economic activities.

As such, it is not surprising that most of women’s income is earned in the informal sector, particularly in street based work. There are 7.5 million female informal sector businesses compared to the 6 million owned by men according to the National Bureau of Statistics. Of course, this work is more precarious. Income is unpredictable and benefits, including access to banking, social security and union representation, are rare in the informal sector.

Within this context, streets are a place where gendered norms of what women and men can and cannot do are clearly observable. Keke drivers, okada riders, taxi drivers, newspaper vendors, recharge card sellers and mai-guards are mostly if not always men. Women on the streets however are mostly engaged in selling food such as akara, fruit and vegetables, or sex.

Indeed, it is difficult not to come across groups of men congregating, sitting outside the houses or buildings they are guarding, particularly in the evenings. They pass the time talking or listening to football on the radio. As I walked around Abuja’s streets on a Sunday afternoon, I came across a cluster of men sitting in the shade huddled around a radio listening to the Chelsea-Arsenal match while guarding a nearby plaza. The score was 0-0 and there was good-natured banter flowing between supporters of the two teams. They told me about how guarding the plaza and listening to football together had cemented friendships between them, marveling at how well men from Benue, Kaduna and Nasarawa of different religions and ethnicities could get along. They themselves say that it is not a bad way to work.

Stanley has a very different perspective. Originally from Enugu, he has been in Abuja for 13 years. Previously an okada rider, he has been driving his taxi for the last five years. ‘This job is stressful,’ he says, speaking about the constant hassle he gets from different government agencies. He would like another job but does not know how he can find one. He tells me he has only ever known two women taxi drivers and they have since stopped. ‘This job is not meant for women. It’s a very hard job,’ he said.

The idea that certain jobs are not for women is a recurring theme in my conversations. Undeniably, a woman’s very access to streets is more restricted, particularly in the North. Here, married women face cultural restrictions that limit their movements whereas single, divorced or widowed women have more freedom to work outside the home. Women often make things at home and use their children to purchase goods and sell products. In this way, single women often support their mothers by hawking items for them. However, they also risk being marked a ‘bad woman’ for being seen doing certain kinds of work or even for being outside alone. That men can go anywhere but women’s activities should be based at home is a perception that is widespread.

Men strongly believe their wives should stay at home so they will not become ‘spoilt’. Restricting women’s movement is a type of controlling behavior that makes up domestic violence.  Levels of violence against women and girls, both inside and outside the home, are high in Nigeria, with male partners the most likely perpetrators. Often, the risk comes from within not outside the home. One in three Nigerian women aged 15 to 24 years old have experienced some form of violence.

Further, men who restrict their wives from going out to work do not recognise the dangers their daughters and sons might face. The younger the girl or woman, the more likely she is to be harassed while hawking. Girls aged 10-14 are 1.7 times more likely to experience harassment than those 20-24 years old. Women and girls who are migrants or have had no formal education are also more likely to experience harassment. This ranges from verbal abuse, seizure of goods being sold and physical bullying to beating and sexual assault. Research in Anambra found that 93.1 percent of girl street hawkers, of an average age of 13, had experienced verbal abuse. It also found that 69.9 percent of the girls had been sexually abused, with almost 20 percent of them having been raped penetratively. They spoke about the pressure to flirt and be seen as sexually attractive so people would buy the products they were selling. This explains why Maryam felt she had no choice but to be nice to the young man – she is used to having to entertain certain behaviour so that she can sell her mangoes and get the money she needs for her family.

Women who sell sex experience particular harassment from the police. In Abuja, which has passed several directives to ban prostitution, they were given 48 hours to leave the city. Picked up during raids aimed at ‘sanitising cities,’ they have to give ‘protection money’ or they are taken to police stations where they either pay or are forced to have sex with officers to be released. Kaduna, Port Harcourt and Ibadan are other cities where women are being arrested, detained and imprisoned on suspicion of sex work.

Women with disabilities are another group which faces harassment, molestation and violence due to attitudes, stigma and the poverty they are more likely to experience and as streets are not designed for them. Risikat Mohammed of Women With Disabilities Self Reliance Centre in Kaduna tells me of a recent case where a woman with physical disabilities and learning difficulties was raped by 5 men where she slept. She also tells me about how it is common for blind women begging on the streets to be raped and for the men in question to go free with little if any efforts to arrest and prosecute them.

In addition to these risks of violence, when women with disabilities try to earn an income through selling goods, people do not go to them. Often, the only way of earning income left to them is through begging. ‘It’s time to start thinking of opening markets for women with disabilities,’ she says.

Indeed, it is stressful, challenging and risky for people with disabilities to even be on the street at all according to Ms. Mohammed. They face challenges in using transportation without assistance, communication if they have hearing or speech impairments and accessibility. She has to ask passersby to help her over the central demarcation when crossing – and sometimes people complain she is disturbing them.

She recounted a recent experience where she was in the middle of the road and a keke came at high speed towards her. ‘The risk is too much,’ she said, ‘I can’t run and I can’t pass.’ She also spoke about the discrimination and stigma. ‘The way that people talk to you is that you are not good for anything but being a beggar,’ Ms. Mohammed explains. She tells me how parents leave their children who have disabilities on the street and use them as sources of income. They then grow up on the street, facing many hazards at an early age.

The streets are full of potential for women to earn money and support themselves and their families but it is not always easy. Far from neutral place when it comes to work, they are a profoundly gendered space. In a deeply patriarchal society, even getting access to working on the streets, in a manner that is safe and economically viable remains a challenge for women in Nigeria.

beyond Chibok: Nigerian women in the middle, grasping for peace

On the one year anniversary of the abductions from Chibok (14th April), the wonderful Lacuna magazine published this feature article I had written for them. Often, when writing or talking, we have to focus on just one aspect of what is happening. When the topic is women, conflict and insecurity, this is most likely to be either about women experiencing violence or about women fighting against all odds. While these both represent part of the reality, they can provide only a cardboard, one dimensional view of the situation. It was a luxury to be able to write about the full picture of what I have been seeing. Thank you Lacuna.

It has been 365 days and they are still missing. A whole year has passed since global attention focused on Nigeria in the aftermath of the kidnap of female students sitting exams from the Government Secondary School in Chibok in Borno State in the North East.

This was not the first time girls and women have been abducted and it was not the last. What was different about Chibok was the number of girls taken and the global interest this sparked. The worldwide movement encompassed the unlikely combination of Nobel Peace Laureate Malala Yousufzai, the pop star Chris Brown, women in a Syrian refugee camp, Michelle Obama and, of course, women’s rights activists from across Nigeria. They demanded a serious, urgent and decisive response.

What has been lost in the narrative is that this movement was started in Maiduguri, Borno’s capital, by women who live with the conflict every day. A week after the abductions, these women called on the Nigerian government and President Goodluck Jonathan to take action. Their plea was simple: “If it were Jonathan’s daughters that have been stolen today, would the country go to sleep?” Their voices came from the heart of the conflict and in the face of great personal risk and fear of reprisals.


A wave of protests took place across Nigeria and on social media calling on the government to #BringBackOurGirls. In Abuja, over 1,000 people, mostly women, marched in the pouring rain to the National Assembly to urge their representatives to act.

Protests were also held in Lagos, Port Harcourt, Kano and other cities around Nigeria.

Solidarity actions took place in cities around the world. Protesters, women and men of all different ethnicities and religions, gathered daily at Unity Fountain in Abuja to maintain pressure on the government. Women in the parts of north-eastern Nigeria most severely affected by the fighting and kidnapping had been organising already around previous cases of abduction. They intensified this, setting up services offering trauma counselling and advocacy for individual survivors. They reached out and rallied those within their communities that held power, such as traditional and religious leaders, to join the fight against the stigma and shame survivors often face.

Beyond hashtags

Living in Abuja and doing human rights, peace and security work, I experienced life in the eye of the tornado that was the intense media and political attention at the time. I was overwhelmed with requests for meetings from international NGOs, foreign government investigative missions and journalists.

Many seemed most interested in their own reputations and arrived in Nigeria with firmly-held preconceived ideas. I became profoundly disillusioned. My frustration was born out of the incomplete and twisted nature of the narrative being spun, in Nigeria and across the world. This was that the issue was about Chibok only, that it was about an easily demonised organisation they called Boko Haram (not actually their name but one given to them by the media) who had kidnapped more than 200 girls. Such abductions have taken place before and after what happened in Chibok in April 2014.

Little attention was paid to the women in the North East who had been negotiating for the release of kidnapped women and girls. Few noticed when women provided healthcare and psychological support for those who were released or managed to escape and others in their communities and spoke out about this on public radio and in other forums. This is in stark contrast to the horror and international attention and condemnation in the wake of the Chibok abductions. Services and assistance were focused solely on the Chibok community. Even when other abductions took place after April, if it wasn’t about ‘the Chibok girls’, people were not interested.

Then there is general prejudice. Nigeria occupies a strange place in the psyche of outsiders. Part fascination, part fear, people come to it full of preconceptions, thinking they know the country without having visited. Synonymous with 419 scams (such as the emails you receive promising untold millions – if you just send your bank details) and corruption, terrorism has been added to the many strings of Nigeria’s bad PR bow. Indeed there is only bad news ever coming out of Africa’s most populous nation: the heart of darkness for modern times.

Amid violence and kidnapping, aid shortages and hunger

Recently the violence in North East Nigeria has intensified. Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal Jihad (JAS), commonly known as Boko Haram, carry out attacks on villages and communities on an almost daily basis.

Chronic underreporting and discrepancies between figures make it difficult to understand the scale of what is happening. The UN at the end of January reported approximately 981,416 people had been displaced across the country, of which more than 90 per cent are in the North East. Others estimate that over 1.5 million people have been displaced since the start of the fighting. People have abandoned rural areas in particular and flooded into the state capital Maiduguri, now bursting at the seams. Given the lack of camps for those displaced, people have been staying with friends, relatives and goodhearted people. I know of families living in chicken coops.

Acute food insecurity seems only months away. People have abandoned farms and agricultural activities due to the fighting, with predictable effect on the next harvest. Food stocks being depleted, people are resorting to eating grain saved for the next planting season. Markets have shut down.

Not only have people’s livelihoods in rural and urban areas been lost due to the fighting but there are now additional members (refugees from pillaged villages) of their household to feed – and food prices in Maiduguri are rocketing.

There is little humanitarian assistance being provided in the face of this escalating need, from the government or from the international community. In 2014, donors provided 17 per cent of the amounts needed for humanitarian work. The humanitarian crisis in Syria and elsewhere in West Africa, added to the perception that Nigeria is rich enough to cope without external support, are likely causes. Meanwhile, local communities try to cope.

The impact on boys and young men

Gender norms are significant in sparking, perpetuating and intensifying violence. This conflict has impacted men and women differently. The way that ideas of masculinity are used to perpetuate violence and drive recruitment is completely absent from analysis and debate.

It is significant, for example, that there is a social expectation that young people, men in particular, defend their communities and take responsibility for their protection. As reported by the Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict, “If you are a man you must join. At 13 and 14 you can join, you are a man.”

Boys and young men are pressured to join groups by threats to their families and incentivised by cash. Such pressure is difficult to resist. Gender norms oblige men to provide ‘bride price’ and be the family breadwinner. Faced with these responsibilities and high rates of unemployment, joining JAS offers livelihood opportunities. This is especially so, when manhood is synonymous with aggression and power. Add to these ideas the notion of a man’s responsibility to defend the community, whether from the encroachment of Western ideas, or from the abductions and killing by JAS.

Kashim Shettima, the Governor of Borno, recognized these pressures on young men and boys. He said: “Yusuf [founder of JAS]… also arranged inexpensive marriages between sect embers, which enabled many of them to marry and gave them personal dignity and self-worth.”

Living with violence

When people think of women and North East Nigeria (if they think of them at all), they think of the abductions of girls from schools and, more recently due to a wave of attacks, young girls used as suicide bombers. These are issues that need urgent action but this is only a partial account of what is actually happening to women.

The conflict exacerbates existing inequalities and marginalisation. According to a 2007 Population Council report, 75 per cent of women who live in rural areas of the North East and North West had never been to school, 64 per cent of young women in the North East are illiterate and the median age of marriage is about 16-years-old. Women own just 4 per cent of the land in the region despite their involvement in subsistence agriculture and other farm activities.

The way the conflict has unfolded, with constant attacks on villages and local infrastructure, has led to the closure of health centres, both permanently and for extended periods of time. This has particularly impacted women: pregnant women are rarely able or willing to seek medical attention and instead look to traditional birth attendants, who often provide a lower quality of care and may engage in harmful practices.

The majority of those displaced by the conflict are women and girls. Of the estimated 87,000 refugees in Niger, 50 per cent are women and 45 per cent are children. Many women must cope with the disappearance, detention, execution and recruitment of their husbands by JAS and the security forces. They live with the uncertainty of not knowing what has happened, the trauma of loss and violence, and the reality of providing for the family left behind. The little aid that is there is given to (male) heads of households: when a man is dead or missing, this may go to his brother and not his wife. Many women, having lost their primary breadwinner, engage in street hawking and selling sex.

There is also a concerted attack on women’s rights and freedoms. Mohammed Yusuf, the founder of JAS, first called for women not to mix with men in schools at all. Then he said women should not attend schools. He later said that nobody should go to school if taught Western, rather than Islamic, education.

My friends in Maiduguri report JAS members threatening women in markets, telling them they should not be in public without male relatives. Women wearing ‘tight clothing’ and particular hairstyles are often killed during ambushes and attacks.

It is right to say that women’s rights, their bodies and freedoms in Borno, as in other countries, have been the battleground on which the war is being fought.

Why does JAS use kidnapping as a weapon?

It was in response to the government imprisoning their own wives that JAS fighters began abducting women and girls.

Following the arrest of over 100 women and children in 2012, JAS leader Shekau said, “Since you are now holding our women, just wait and see what will happen to your own women. Just wait and see what will happen to your own wives according to Shariah law, just wait and see if it is sweet and convenient for you.” The wives and children of soldiers were abducted from military barracks in Bama, an area in Borno, in December 2013 and the rate and scale of abductions has increased in the past 18 months. The following verse is used as Qur’anic justification to abduct so-called enemy women. “Also (forbidden are) women already married, except those (captives and slaves) whom your right hands possess. Thus has Allah ordained for you.”

Women and girls are being taken from schools, markets, during raids, public transport, during and after attacks on villages and on roads. On 12th December 2013, armed men along the Damboa-Biu road captured women on their way home from the bank. Young women have been taken from their homes at night or from the streets while hawking products. The kidnappers offer between N2,000 to N5,000 (between £7 and £17) to their parents as bride price. Then the women and girls are taken to camps where they are forced into domestic servitude, ‘marry’ fighters and to convert.

One of the women who escaped spoke about being raped repeatedly by 10 to 15 men a day, some young enough to be her sons. She was also ‘married’ to one of them. When tested for HIV, she found she was pregnant. Her husband “found it difficult to accept her back”. She became depressed and tried to commit suicide. It was only then that she was permitted to have an abortion. In Nigeria, abortion is illegal unless to save the life of the mother.

When people sent to protect become the bad guys

Another reality of the conflict is abuses committed by government forces and officials. The International Centre for Investigative Reporting found that hundreds of girls and boys had been kidnapped from refugee camps in Borno and had been trafficked, raped or sold as unpaid domestic workers.

A reporter from the Centre was offered children at a price of N50,000 (£165) each by officials from the government’s National Emergency Management Agency. The same journalist interviewed a 16-year-old girl who was promised a job helping the wife of a State Emergency Management Agency official. When she arrived at his home, there was no wife. The state official locked her in his home and raped her continuously until she managed to escape. A panel set up to investigate the incident has been given just one week to gather evidence and present findings.

I interviewed women’s rights activists in the Middle Belt of Nigeria for an earlierreport and they told similar stories of the sexual abuse of women and girls by security forces. Sexual exploitation and abuse by armies is a problem worldwide, and while it has received greater international attention in recent years, there is still a culture of silencing and denial. When you raise the issue with officials, the reaction is either to reject it happens or acceptance with excuses such as, ‘What else can you expect? They’re so far away from their wives.’

Women as fighters

Women as victims and survivors of violence is just one side of the story. They are also active participants in both JAS and in groups aimed at stopping the sect.

There is a women’s wing of JAS made up of women and girls who chose to join or were forced to do so after being abducted. Although coercion is at play through the use of drugs, indoctrination and fear, at least some of these women are active agents who have chosen to join the sect. Gender inequality is tied to reasons why many women get involved. Academics Zainab Usman, Sherine El-Taraboulsi and Khadija Gambo Hawaja found in their recent research on radicalisation that societal and cultural expectations of women to depend economically on men leave them with few options when husbands or fathers leave to become active members of JAS or if they die. Without education and with little access to jobs, women have few ways to support themselves and their families. JAS gives money, food and other benefits to members and has a dedicated fund for widows of insurgents, in contrast to the lack of compensation or social safety net provided by the state.

JAS also offers opportunities to women they do not have elsewhere. Women in parts of North East Nigeria typically face barriers in taking part in public life, but were able to participate in gatherings led by Mohammed Yusuf, the founder of JAS. He would also speak to them directly, albeit about how to behave and dress.

A desire to avenge the deaths of family members by security forces is also a motivating factor for women joining, especially given widespread detention without trial of anyone of fighting age and extrajudicial killings of those suspected (but not proven) to be part of JAS.

Women play the traditionally gendered roles of cooking, cleaning, companionship and providing sex (either voluntarily or through force). They transport weapons and money past security officials, gather intelligence and lure security forces into ambush, as they are less likely to be suspected than men. Three women caught with eight AK-47 rifles which they planned to sell, said they had no other choice given lack of sources of livelihood and that JAS was offering them N1,500 per gun.

Women are also instrumental in recruitment and training, particularly of other women, by using family and kinship connections. Indeed, marriage is a powerful tool to cement relationships of trust and loyalty to keep those already radicalised within the fold and used as a reward for joining. Honour accrues to families whose members have been martyred in the struggle and there have been reports of women urging their men into battle and using social pressure to persuade family and close friends to join.

Women and girls have also participated directly in attacks. In July 2014, female bombers carried out attacks in Kano. In July 2014, a 10-year-old girl was arrested carrying a suicide belt. In January 2015, a girl suicide bomber thought to be as young as 10 detonated a device near the main market in Maiduguri, killing at least 20 people and injuring many more. Teenage girls with AK-47s carry out attacks on communities such as that on Marte LGA on 10th July 2014. A student at the Federal Government Girls’ College in Taraba was found during a routine bed search with two grenades. A 19-year-old girl who escaped from a camp was interviewed on BBC Hausa about attempts to initiate her as a warrior. After they had killed four men, she was asked to kill the fifth. When she was unable to do so, the task was taken over by a woman fighter. Part of the responsibilities of active senior female JAS fighters is to oversee the integration of newly abducted women into camp life.

Not only are women active in JAS but they are also active in fighting against them. Young women and men, filling a vacuum caused by the failure of security forces to adequately protect communities, formed community self help groups, known as the Civilian Joint Task Force (JTF).  The Civilian JTF is not above reproach: there have been a number of incidences of human rights violations, including sexual harassment of young women. People in the North East are worried that there may be a trend towards indiscriminate violence if care is not taken. However, they are also seen as the key factor stopping JAS taking over Maiduguri.

Although young men make up the majority of Civilian JTF members, women are also active due to their personal commitment to act and the outcry against men searching women at checkpoints. A young widow, who witnessed the killing of her relatives by JAS and was threatened with assassination for not wearing the hijab, started the women’s corps. When female JAS members began carrying arms to sustain the insurgency, women started checking fellow women, catching many trying to sneak past checkpoints with arms and ammunition. Women have been active in ferrying people out of occupied territories, including two who were caught and killed in front of other women last year. Women, such as Mai Bintu, the woman chief hunter of Bama, have also led the Civilian JTF on operations against JAS.

JAS has threatened to be particularly violent with female security and intelligence officials: “Whenever we catch any woman spying on us, we would slaughter her like a ram.” In 2013, a video was released of the beheading of a female security official.

Women as negotiators for peace

In addition to women’s roles in fighting on all sides, they are also crucial in keeping families and communities going. They have been finding new ways to ensure access to education despite closure of government schools.

Women’s rights organisations have been working with vulnerable and marginalised groups such as sex workers, hawkers, domestic workers, widows and survivors of sexual violence equipping them with life skills and linking them to microfinance bodies. They have been vocal in pressuring the government and traditional and religious leaders to take action. There have been multiple marches from 2009 onwards calling for peace and justice by women through the streets of Maiduguri in the midst of the conflict and violence.

Women act as interlocutors and negotiators as they are more trusted than men with JAS and security forces alike and due to their contacts. They ensure safe passage for humanitarian and medical agencies to provide emergency care needed. They negotiate for the return of women and girls who have been abducted. Caught between security forces who commit human rights violations and JAS fighters who attack, kill and abduct, these women walk a narrow path to be seen as independent and neutral. As Barrister Aisha Wakil, one of the women trying to negotiate peace, says, ‘I’m just in the middle grasping for peace.’

They draw on a long tradition of women’s active participation in politics and state administration including during the time of the historical Borno Empire. This reality is in stark contrast to stereotypical images of north-eastern Muslim Nigerian women: victims of abuse, married off at an early age, in seclusion with little agency or power.

It’s complicated:  the role of women in the conflict

Despite the active and pivotal roles women are playing as JAS fighters, CJTF members, security officials, to negotiate and build peace and fight for human rights and justice, the conflict is seen as between men. The clash is seen to be between young men in the army, young men in JAS and young male Civilian JTF members, with women only occupying the space of victimhood.

One year after the Chibok abductions focused the eyes of the world onto Nigeria, the epicentre of the international storm has moved elsewhere. Foreign media and politicians no longer talk about the Chibok girls. They are now concerned with Isis, Syria and Iraq.

Meanwhile, in Borno, the battles, physical, rhetorical, political and ideological continue to be fought on and over the bodies of women. They suffer violence and its short and long-term impact but victimhood and suffering is not the only story. Women are also active participants in the insurgency, in fighting against it, in resisting violence, helping others cope and in working for peace, justice and rights.

immigration: a political landscape of rhetoric

Immigration… What is there to say about the unjust rhetoric, policies and practices we are seeing in the UK? It’s the worst it has ever been, with all mainstream parties, the media and popular discourse shifting massively to the right on this issue. Even in the 1950s and 1960s, the heyday of Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech and No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish signs, the government of the day welcomed immigrants into the country. They needed us to revive and kickstart the economy.

In the run-up to the 7th May elections, I wrote this piece for Real Media.

An upcoming election, rising inequality and an economy yet to recover from recession: into this mix comes the most virulent anti-immigration rhetoric seen in the United Kingdom for decades. ‘Coming over here and taking our jobs and benefits’ is no longer a phrase restricted to political fringes but mainstream, with all political parties talking tough on immigration. Although two UKIP MPs elected into the House of Commons is a sign of the times, it intensifies a trend rather than breaks with the past. After all, the issue was never if UKIP would garner enough support to form a government but rather whether they would change the political landscape.

It is now a brave politician indeed who brings nuance, talks of the benefits of immigration or highlights injustice and lies at the heart of political decision-making and media stories. ‘Facts’ are twisted and misrepresented in a widening gulf between rhetoric and reality. Much media reporting and political pronouncements do not stand up to scrutiny.

In 2013, Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, said ‘large amounts of taxpayers’ money is being lost’ through treating ‘health tourists’. Research however found more people left the country for medical treatment and that health tourism was a lucrative source of income, with medical tourists spending £261m on hospital care, hotels, restaurants, shopping and transport. The Lancet called plans to charge non European temporary migrants and overseas visitors and prevent health tourism ‘not only ethically, economically, and politically unsound, but downright unhealthy.’

Closely linked is the charge of ‘benefit tourists’ from European Union member states. The Daily Telegraph reported a EU study had found 600,000 unemployed migrants living in Britain. Only upon reading the report will you find this was the ‘non-active’ population over 15 and included children, students and pensioners. They are 600,000 out of 20 million, or 3 percent. Their employment rate is 77 percent compared to 72 percent for UK nationals. A fifth of the British working age population claims child benefit and tax credits – but only 2.1 percent and 1 percent of immigrants from other EU countries do so respectively. Even the dreaded migrants from Eastern Europe have a 60 percent lower likelihood of being on welfare. In fact, a Guardian investigation found unemployed Britons are drawing much more in benefits and allowances in wealthier EU countries than their nationals are claiming in the UK.

The OECD even stated public debate about immigration is being distorted by unfounded concerns about financial burdens immigrants place. Indeed, the Office of Budget Responsibility says immigration is beneficial and more immigrants are needed to balance the books and prevent rising national debt.

So, it turns out immigration is good for the economy. Some have argued that although this may be true, it is the working class who feel detrimental impact, especially since the ascension of 8 mainly Eastern European countries to the EU in 2004. In fact, econometric studies find little evidence that migrants from these countries increased unemployment or reduced wages.

2008 study found immigration actually increased average wages by £4 a year. When broken down, this reduced wages of the bottom 10 percent of earners by around £1 a year but increased wages of the top 10 percent by £5 a year. Differential class implications can be seen – but impact on the working class is far less than claimed in populist discourse.

Indeed, vagueness, inaccuracy and deliberate misinformation around facts characterises the anti-immigrant stance. Jeremy Hunt saying ‘large amounts of taxpayers’ money is being lost’ is on the same spectrum as the Home Office saying ‘we consider that these questions place too much emphasis on quantitative evidence’ when asked to provide evidence of ‘benefits tourism.’ Media and politicians often inflate the numbers of immigrants and their impact on jobs and services, mask lack of evidence with overblown rhetoric and focus on immigration out of all proportion to its importance.

Unfortunately, deliberate distortion of facts shapes perceptions. Evidence based refutations of these myths are less read than the originals. A sustained campaign of misinformation and propaganda is heightening in the lead up to elections, creating an echo chamber between politicians, media and ‘the people’ reflecting this back at each other, with very little room for reasoned debate. Language used to describe immigration is highly hostile, with inflated figures and threatening imagery.

The discussion is also highly raced and classed.

It perpetuates the myth that working class people are particularly anti-immigration. This is not true. We need to look at structures of power and control as we dismantle the lie of the anti immigrant working class. Who is it perpetuating lies in the media? Passing unjust anti-immigrant laws and policies? It is the political and media elite, dominated by those from upper and middle class backgrounds. Entire sectors, drive by technological change, are disappearing. The recession and recovery, rather than opportunities to take stock and rebalance, are increasing inequality. Into this, comes a steady blaming of immigrants for government failure. After all, it is easy to scapegoat immigrants. It is more difficult to look at causes of inequality and poverty.

It is a heady, potent and dangerous mix of economics and identity intertwined. Those who say ‘it’s not racist to talk about immigration’ point to black British people and note we are also talking about white Eastern Europeans immigrants. This oversimplification disregards the long history of racialising outsiders, with Eastern Europeans the latest in a long line of ‘white people’, including Jews and Irish, imbued with racialised characteristics. It also ignores the reality that black people, regardless of how long they have been in the UK, are always seen as outsiders. This can be seen by both the race profiling over stop and searches and headlines over ‘hidden migrants’ i.e. children of migrants born in the UK. Emily Thornberry’s tweeted photograph of a house with multiple English flags was seen as snobbish, condescending and patronising but the racist connotations of the England flag, growing jingoism and nationalism and the links between internalised racism and anti-immigrant sentiment were hardly examined. The difference between immigration laws, policies and realities of EU and non EU citizens is obviously raced.

In the past fifteen years, politicians and the media have actively created a racist electorate and embedded racism in British politics. At times of crisis, in order to mask lack of action or to cover up the impact of policies on people’s lives, the immigrant bogeyman is consciously and continually constructed and re-constructed in order to maintain popularity and win votes at election time. In this way, politicians offer an invitation to construct a common nationhood, with the seductive promise that all would/ will be well if it just wasn’t for ‘them’ ruining our ‘great nation.’ In this way, immigrants become scapegoats for all that is wrong with UK society, culture and economy.

We need to call the headlines about soon being overrun by ‘growing numbers of foreigners’ what it is: the fear that ‘those people from over there’ will soon ‘outnumber us.’ Enoch Powell’s ‘the black man will have the whip hand over the white man’ and rivers of blood for the twenty-first century.

Now politicians have successfully produced a racist public fed with a daily misleading news diet from a hostile press, they are struggling to ride the tiger of public sentiment they themselves have created, with detrimental impact. As the baby boom generation retires and a smaller working age population supports a larger number of retirees, we are likely to see the UK open its borders once more, as it did in the 1950s when those from the former Empire were asked to come and work. The UK needs immigrants to keep up with demographic change.

After all, the UK is a country built by immigration and emigration. The Beaker People, the Angles, the Saxons, the Jutes, the Vikings, the Romans, the Normans – and this is just until 1066. Bones of an African woman, presumed to be a trader, have been discovered dated to Roman times. Catherine of Aragon brought African attendants with her when she married Henry VII. John Hawkyns sold 300 West African men to planters in Haiti in 1562. The East India Company in the 1600s had British men going over to India to trade and colonise. There were black slaves in most wealthy households at the time. Chinese books were in wealthy British homes from the early 1600s onwards. Shen Fu Tsong was a popular figure in the court of James II. This is all before 1700. Arthur Wharton, who moved from Ghana, signed for Rotherham in 1889. Dadabhai Naoroji was the Asian MPs, elected to parliament in 1892 to represent Finsbury Central.

Voluntary and involuntary migration to and from the land now seen as the United Kingdom – and that forced to other countries by citizens of that land – has been happening for centuries. The UK’s past and current global economic, political and cultural status has and is depended on this. The mythologised past before immigration that UKIP and others allude to never existed. Immigration and emigration is at the heart of what the UK has become.

We need to re-centre the narrative to acknowledge the histories of immigration and emigration that implicate us all and, rather than have all eyes on them, to look at the world through immigrants’ eyes. We have to combat lies with facts. The immigration debate should not be centred only on economics but on justice and human rights. The inhumanity of the current system where families are separated, as spouses of citizens are not allowed into the country because of lack of funds, or where decisions in cases where asylum seekers are likely to win are deferred so officials can maintain their 60 percent ‘win rate’ needs to be exposed. We need responsible politicians who care about the people living in the UK, not about using rhetoric to cover up their failures in an effort to win votes.

Instead of allowing divide and rule tactics to succeed, we need to practice solidarity, truth and justice.

#Bringbackourgirls hasn’t brought back Chibok’s girls, but it has changed Nigeria’s politics

I wrote this for The Guardian on the one year anniversary of the abductions from Chibok that sparked global consciousness (at least for a while). As of today, it’s been 412 days.

The story that emerged from Nigeria this time last year should have read something like this. “Last night, armed men attempted to kidnap more than 200 girls from Chibok government secondary school in Nigeria’s north-east Borno state. Security forces, stationed at the school to protect the girls, foiled their plan. The president, who flew to Chibok this morning to meet the girls and their families, apologised, admitting more precautions should have been taken. In the wake of several such attempts to kidnap women and girls over the past two years by Jama’at Ahlus-Sunnah Lida’awati wal-Jihad , commonly known as Boko Haram, he announced his government would undertake a comprehensive review to make sure this never happened again. The girls and their families will now benefit from comprehensive medical care and counselling offered by the government.”

If the story had played out like that, it would never have caught the attention of global politicians, celebrities and the Twitterati. But, of course, the girls were in fact abducted by Boko Haram, and one year later, the majority are still missing.

In all the discussions and news coverage that followed the abductions, the voices of women in the region were rarely heard. But they were the first to speak out, continuing the protests and activism in which they have been engaged since the start of the insurgency. A week after the abductions, Borno women, coordinated by Baobab for Human Rights, called on the government and their president to take action. They warned that the government would be seen as accomplices in the abduction if they failed to rescue the girls. They went to Chibok, lobbied the state government and made links with women and men all over the country and around the world.

Chibok was the not the first abduction, and it hasn’t been the last. It is estimated that at least 2,000 women and girls have been kidnapped since the start of 2014. Boys and young men have also been taken. It was not that this was not known before; a typical sentence in a Nigerian newspaper reporting on an attack would be “56 people were killed, 29 women and girls taken and property burned and destroyed.” Even before the abductions from Chibok, women activists in north-east Nigeria had been trying to raise awareness of what was happening, urge political action and provide services and assistance to those who escaped or were rescued.

This time, the world paid attention. In cities across Nigeria, including Abuja, Lagos, Kano, Port Harcourt and Jos, people went out on the streets, demanding that the government “Bring Back Our Girls”. There were marches and protests across the world. Syrian women in a refugee camp spoke out in solidarity. This increased attention led the government to develop guidelines on gender-based violence, including provision for counselling, mental health services and continued education for girls. Women’s rights activists also drew attention to the fact that Nigeria has no national laws against violence against women and girls, despite numerous attempts and civil society pressure to pass legislation since 2003.

Women’s activism and participation in public life in what is now north-east Nigeria stretches back to the time of the historical Kanem-Bornu empire. In the modern day, women have played a direct role in hostilities – as security officials, Boko Haram fighters and members of community security groups. They walk the line between different sides of the conflict, negotiating for the return of women and girls, for access for humanitarian workers to give medical care, and for the end of the fighting itself. Acting as mediators, they try to negotiate peace between Boko Haram and the government.

Women also support those who have experienced the brunt of the violence. They provide services to survivors of rape and sexual violence and speak out against the stigma and shame they experience. The University of Maiduguri Muslim women’s association is one of many women-led organisations which have provided food and shelter to those who have fled rural areas for the state capital. The Centre for Women and Adolescent Empowerment, and Tapestry, have set up a support network to address trauma in girls and women, training lay counsellors in communities across the north-eastern states affected by the insurgency. Working together across ethnic and religious lines, women have repeatedly marched and protested in the streets of Maiduguri, against the continued detention of their family members, for human rights, and for peace and justice.

Tomorrow marks one year since the girls were taken from Chibok government secondary school. Although not at the same fever pitch as in May and June last year, and perhaps all but forgotten outside the country, the abductions are still present in people’s minds in Nigeria. Newspapers still carry boxes declaring the number of days it has been since the abductions. Women in Borno carry on supporting women and girls who have managed to escape – and push for human rights, justice and an end to the conflict. Women from the state capital Maiduguri will be in Chibok tomorrow to commemorate, support and comfort families through the anniversary.

The indefatigable Bring Back Our Girls movement continues to hold protests. Rallying people all around the world, they have called for a week of action in solidarity. A man is cycling across west Africa, from Abidjan to Lagos, to raise awareness. The anniversary will see the Empire State building lit up in purple and red. There will be a Global School Girl March, taking place from Tasmania in Australia to Stavanger in Norway, from Santiago in Chile to London in the UK – and, of course, in cities across Nigeria.

This campaigning has been successful in highlighting the plight of the abducted girls, and although it hasn’t led to their safe return yet, it has had an important effect on Nigerian politics. Perceived government inaction in the wake of Chibok abductions was not the only reason Nigerians voted Goodluck Jonathan out of office last month, but insecurity and violence in the north-east was one of the main factors in prompting many to vote for change. In the run up to the presidential elections, people still asked: what has he done to bring back our girls? The Bring Back Our Girls movement was instrumental in mobilising the country in protests and conversations about the abductions, and in doing so, helped remove a Nigerian president from power in what will be the first democratic transition in the country’s history.

The president of Nigeria is set to change on 29 May, but women in the north-east will continue to push for justice, peace, human rights – and the return of women and girls who have been abducted in the past two years. Once in office, the president-elect, Muhammadu Buhari, has to deliver.

 Now that Buhari is in office, I’m looking forward to the steps he will take to ensure genuine, meaningful and sustained peace and security for all – both women and men – in the North East.