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.

 

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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.

#BringBackOurGirls

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.

#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.

Spinning Stories: Competing Narratives about ‘Boko Haram’

Last week, I attended two events on Jama’atu Ahlu Sunna Li Da’awati wal Jihad (JAS), commonly known as Boko Haram, and the situation in North-East Nigeria.

As one of the speakers, Dr Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos himself said, in addition to the war between the government and JAS, there is also a war of words between conflicting narratives of what is taking place. This came out very strongly in the different positions taken by the speakers at the two events, especially concerning the ‘internationalisation’ of JAS.

I have my own thoughts about this. It’s clear the ‘internationalisation’ narrative fits very neatly into the interests of certain actors in growing militarisation and international presence in the region. I’m yet to be persuaded that the evidence backs this narrative. What is used in support seems too much like constructing theories on the basis of stringing together a number of assertions based on flimsy evidence interpreted in certain ways.

I am open to changing my mind if presented with the evidence.

There were many other issues discussed beyond the internationalisation debate. Can elections be held in the North-East given the state of insecurity? Who does it benefit to hold or not hold elections? From where does JAS get food, fuel and arms? Is there an incentive to have an amnesty process?

You can read the full discussions at the events at my Storify of the event.

And, of course, the end of the week saw the announcement of a ceasefire by the Chief of Defence Staff, followed closely by continued attacks over the weekend in the North-East.

let us talk about racism when discussing identity, belonging and multiculturalism

I read the speech of David Cameron, Prime Minister, to the Munich Security Conference with more than a little anger at the partial nature of his analysis.

He was talking about Muslim young men turning to extremism and violence because they did not feel British, and this is all he had to say about racism:

So, when a white person holds objectionable views, racist views for instance, we rightly condemn them.’

That is it. Not mentioning impacts of racism on feelings of identity and belonging not only shows a complete lack of understanding, but decontextualises the situation and denies the reality of the power dynamics at play.

‘…we have allowed the weakening of our collective identity. Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream. We’ve failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong. We’ve even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values…. instead of encouraging people to live apart, we need a clear sense of shared national identity that is open to everyone.

If this analysis is correct, I should be among the immigrants to the UK most likely to feel British. I moved here when I was five. I have never lived in areas with big Asian communities. We have always been one of very few black families in the area so I have never experienced these ‘segregated communities.’ So why did it take me until I held a British passport, age 18, to even start feeling English? Why did I, at the age of seven, automatically support the football team playing against England even though I had no idea which country it was?

The reasons, as for many black immigrants and communities, is not due to the ‘failures of multiculturalism’ or ‘living in separate communities.’ Rather, the cause is years of racism, everything ranging from the direct attacks to the daily grind of living in a country that has policies, institutions and discourse that do not take you into account,

We lived in Oldham when we first moved here in the late 80s/ early 90s. Believe me, learning to read ‘Paki go home’ and getting beaten up regularly because I was a ‘Paki’ was not a fun induction for a five year old Indian girl to the ‘British way of life.’ While at university, I had stones thrown at me on the street in Nottingham because ‘your people bombed the Twin Towers.’ My Asian male friends were asked to leave a pub in Leeds because they were making others feel uncomfortable. Obviously a group of Asian men together are terrorists plotting to blow up the country. Last year, I had a skinhead spit at me on a Sunday afternoon while I was waiting for the bus at Finsbury Park tube station in north London. I had told him to stop harassing an Asian couple, quite newly arrived in the UK. Apparently ‘their lot’ had not only stolen his mates’ jobs, but also beaten them up. Luckily the bus came before he hit me but nobody waiting at the bus stop did anything to stop him in the meanwhile. I was told afterwards that perhaps I should not have intervened because it was not safe. However, I can handle this more than the couple that was getting harassed in the first place, having experienced similar things ever since I can remember. I wonder if David Cameron has ever felt as ashamed of the United Kingdom and ‘being British’ as I did then? It is not surprising that I felt closer to this woman and man who had spent just arrived in this country than the British people waiting at the bus stop who, like me, had grown up here.

I know I am not the only black person who has had such experiences.

Saturday morning (perhaps just before Cameron delivered his speech?), I passed a group of men walking down the road singing/ chanting. I first thought it was a protest that I’d missed out on finding out about. They joined their mates outside a pub. I noticed the England flags and actually thought of going to check out the England match that had somehow slipped under my radar. That’s when I noticed the men wearing the EDL jumpers. I later found out that they were on their way to the demonstrations in Luton.

I do not think David Cameron will ever know how I felt at that moment; an instinctive physical and visceral reaction. It was broad daylight, there were plenty of people around but I was still scared. Why did he not talk about the fact that I, in the country in which I was brought up in, did not feel safe walking the streets of London this weekend? What sense of belonging are we supposed to feel?

I know I am not the only black person who feels this way when they walk past EDL or BNP supporters.

What and whom was he trying to signal, knowing the EDL were marching the same day? He says it was an unfortunate coincidence, but this is the effect it had:

Some of crowd were jubilant, saying that Cameron “had come round to our way of thinking”. Paul Bradburn, 35, from Stockport, said Cameron was “coming out against extremism”. He added: “The timing of his speech is quite weird as it comes on the day of one of the biggest EDL demos we’ve ever seen. If he wants to start sticking up for us, that’s great.”

Coalition approval ratings are down, but is going for the BNP/ UKIP vote really the way forward?

I know the EDL are not reflective of the majority of Britons. However, I can say the same to David Cameron. He talks about Islamic extremism. Why is he not talking about the racism on the streets, in our schools (it would be good to learn about slavery, the British empire and colonialism by the way), in our policies, in our institutions and perpetrated by individuals?

They point to grievances about Western foreign policy and say, ‘Stop riding roughshod over Muslim countries and the terrorism will end.’ But there are many people, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, who are angry about Western foreign policy, but who don’t resort to acts of terrorism. They also point to the profusion of unelected leaders across the Middle East and say, ‘Stop propping these people up and you will stop creating the conditions for extremism to flourish.’ But this raises the question: if it’s the lack of democracy that is the problem, why are there so many extremists in free and open societies?…These are just contributory factors.

Really? The UK has invaded Afghanistan and Iraq in the last 10 years, propped up Middle Eastern governments and dictators for their own ends for decades and that’s not to mention Britain’s historic and continuing role in Palestine and Kashmir. Surely anger and despair over foreign policy decisions is more than just a contributing factor here. Don’t take this from me. Michael Scheuer, the CIA analyst who led the CIA’s hunt for Osama bin Laden has said attacks are motivated precisely because of foreign policies: ‘They hate us for what we do, not who we are.’ I don’t particularly trust CIA analysis, but I assumed it carried some weight with David Cameron.

…we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream…

Integration into society works both ways. I’m guessing by speaking against these segregated communities, the Tory government is going to get rid of faith schoolsfree schools and even private schools as well? I cannot think of a way to divide people faster than have children spend hours every day in the company of others just like them. How well are government ministers integrated into ‘mainstream’ British society? What is the mainstream anyway? This kind of language assumes a model of the white person, with anything outside it as deviant and ‘other.’ How many close black friends do people in the government have? I am guessing David Cameron does not have many friends in his inner circle from outside a narrow white, upper (middle) class background. I do not consider that to be mainstream either.

The failure, for instance, of some to confront the horrors of forced marriage, the practice where some young girls are bullied and sometimes taken abroad to marry someone when they don’t want to, is a case in point… do they believe in universal human rights – including for women and people of other faiths?

Can everyone please stop using the rhetoric of fighting for women’s rights to justify any of this? Quite frankly, I have had enough of white people and black men talk over the heads of black women about black women, about our bodies, our experiences and our realities, using gender equality and culture/ tradition arguments to justify their racism, imperialism and sexism. The continuing occupation of Afghanistan is now justified in the name of the liberation of women. As Kandiyoti argues, ‘the challenge to platforms for gender equality comes not just from actors with fundamentalist agendas, but from a conjuncture where women’s rights have been opportunistically intrumentalised to serve geopolitical goals, and neo-liberal policies have severed social justice from gender equality concerns.’

Implicit in all this is a positioning of ‘liberated’ white women against the oppressed black women that smacks of orientalism. Of course, neither characterisation is true. Black men are not savages, black women are not victims and white people, including the government, are not saviours for black women. Yes, ‘the horrors of forced marriage‘ are very real, but violence against women is not limited to black communities. Let us not forget only 6 percent of reported rapes end in a successful prosecution and that2009 showed a dramatic increase in the numbers of women killed by violent partners in the UK. This includes all women. White women are not living in some feminist fantasy utopia of equality and opportunity and black women are not all oppressed.

I do not trust that Cameon has the best interests of black women truly at heart, I really don’t. He may say he does, he may even think he does, but he really does not. If he really cares about black women, he would talk with us and listen to us seriously when we identify what we need.

The reason why some people living in this country do not feel British is not solely because of the nature of the communities in which they live but rather also the nature of mainstream British society and UK government policies. It would have been much more honest of Cameron to acknowledge there continues to be problems with racism, systemic, institutionalised and individualised, in this country. By not mentioning the role entrenched racism plays in all of this, he just ignored our lived reality and experiences. David Cameron needs to stop perpetuating a white-centric view of race relations and have a long hard look at himself, as well as at British society, institutions and policies.

Frankly, I’m just bored by this whole debate. The speech showed a lack of new analysis and seemed aimed at bolstering the popularity of the Tory led government. It seems David Cameron has missed it but we have been having this same debate about multiculturalism since 2004. There is nothing new in his speech, just as there is nothing new in what I have written here. Why do we have to keep saying the same things over and over again? Can we move forward please to the proper debate that is needed?

This piece was first published on Black Feminists on 11th February 2011. It was the first blogpost I ever wrote. Hopefully my pieces have become shorter and more concise since then.