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.

 

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.

put away the scriptures and follow justice

I’ve not been very good at keeping this updated with articles I’ve written and had published elsewhere. Here is a piece that I wrote for openDemocracy back in February. I’ll be putting up others over the next few days.

During a visit to Bayelsa state in Southern Nigeria last year, I was taken aback to hear a male Christian leader quote Karl Marx to describe how trust in God reduces the potential for struggle and mobilisation: “religion is an opiate of the masses.” Belief in the divine can stop people from acting when those with power are seen as favoured, regardless of their corruption, crimes and human rights abuses. All too often, inequality is seen as God’s will.

When I began doing human rights and peace-building work in Nigeria in 2013, I struggled with the role religion should play. I worried about strengthening structures that continue to be patriarchal and homophobic, and which in some cases accentuate religious tensions that lead to violence. The conflict in the Middle Belt of the country is a good example. This recent sermon by David Oyedepo, one of the most influential pastors in Nigeria, is another:

God has anointed me to lead the revolution against Islamist jihadists… You catch anyone that looks like them. [Stamps foot] Kill him. There is no report to anybody. Kill him. Pull out his neck and spill his blood, I will spit it on the ground.”

When I talk about religion, I’m referring to religious institutions and ‘big men’ rather than to the personal beliefs that people hold. Many people of faith question the power of religious institutions and the ways in which they use it. When the Ebola virus came to Nigeria last year, for example, many pastors and faith healers invited those who were worried to come to them for a cure. Most people of faith I know denounced this act as highly irresponsible.

But faith-based organisations in countries with inadequate welfare states also serve the vulnerable and marginalised. They garner huge respect and influence by offsetting the failure of the state to provide basic services. They are filled with women and men who have a genuine passion for the work they do—setting up safe houses for women experiencing violence and abuse, bringing different religious communities together in inter-faith dialogue, providing food and shelter for the displaced and much more. My time spent with them has been among the most rewarding in my work.

So I’ve come to realise that I have to work with what’s already here—what has meaning for and influence over people’s lives—and that often does mean religion.

I was brought up a Hindu. I tried to see my way through the thicket of hetero-normativity and male domination by learning the history of alternative practices, but I couldn’t find a form of Hinduism that wasn’t shot through by Brahminical patriarchy, one without ingrained caste-based ablist discrimination.  I go to temples with my family and do puja (worship) with them, but I am guided by my own ethics rather than religious morals.

I doubt whether any revisionist Hinduism could uproot its oppressive nature: even the most reform minded believers come up against unambiguous words in religious texts and practices eventually. For example, most religions teach the superiority of men over women. The Buddha may have changed his mind about allowing women to join the Sangha (community) after protests from female followers, but the eight Garudhammas or “weighty rules” still entrench hierarchy between women and men regardless of their knowledge and experience.

Hetero-normative and patriarchal interpretations dominate. This is unsurprising given that most texts are written, interpreted and taught by men. It is vital to reinterpret these texts, to question what is presented as ‘tradition’ and ‘culture’ and recover the lived experiences of different people in the past. This is particularly so in countries where there’s little room for manoeuvre outside of religious frameworks.

One of the most effective strategies in the toolbox of the activist can be their knowledge of culture and religion, whether this is the history of same sex love and desire in India or the role of women in Buddhism. Our ancestors can surprise us with what was permitted, accepted and even celebrated: so-called ‘unchanging’ traditions are never static since social mores alter over time.

Nevertheless, transforming religious structures isn’t easy. As a woman in Port Harcourt recently told me, “I am a Christian and we are taught we must be submissive wives. I now know that although I still must submit, there are some things that should not be tolerated.” She was talking about violence against women and girls, so there is progress of a sort in shifting consciousness. But the transformation I seek is not that women know that violence against them is wrong, but that they see themselves as equals—and so much else besides.

Perhaps these deeper changes won’t happen unless religion itself is fundamentally transformed. Given the power religion has already, do we risk strengthening the hands of reactionaries and patriarchs when working with religious institutions? Recently an Indian activist told me about an all-male gathering of religious leaders that was organized by an international aid agency to talk about the struggle against sex-selective abortion. On returning home, the men started speaking about all abortion as ‘sin.’

An over reliance on religion can also marginalise religious minorities that are already ostracised. It can strengthen narratives that declare that ‘religion’ and ‘nation’ are synonymous, such as the myth of “Hindutva” culture propagated by Hindu nationalists in India. The logical result is that all others are seen as ‘foreigners’ who dilute the ‘purity of the nation.’

This includes those who do not believe in any religion, whose numbers are often kept artificially low by social opprobrium and the danger that comes with questioning religious orthodoxy. Apostasy is a death sentence in many places. Most of my friends in Nigeria who see themselves as humanists are not ‘out’ to their colleagues, families and friends, which is understandable when the potential risks include being beaten by family members, committed to a psychiatric hospital for the medical diagnosis of “the personality disorder of atheism,” and receiving death threats.

In the UK, those wishing to leave religion have a safety net since there are structures in place to protect them. However, even here, the move from ‘multiculturalism’ to ‘multi-faithism’—where ethnic minorities are viewed through the lens of religion, often at the expense of any analysis of race—marginalises the diversity of voices and viewpoints. Relations with racialised communities have become mediated by religious leaders. Black people have become essentialised as inherently religious, casting those who are not as ‘inauthentic.’ Freedom of religion also means freedom from religion—everywhere and for everyone.

Yet fundamentalism is increasing in many parts of the world. Contemporary religious-political movements make use of the state machinery to consolidate power and impose their version of doctrine. The primary victims of fundamentalist action are those who come from the religion, community and society in question. There are many, like those in Women Against Fundamentalism, who are fighting these trends, and they need allies.

Nevertheless, in countries where religion is a major social force, there’s a real need to engage with religious leaders precisely because of the power they have. Not doing so minimises impact, and means that one can’t reach the majority of women and men for whom faith is a daily lived public and private reality, often mediated through religious structures.

In some cases, pushing for the implementation of religious doctrine may actually help to realise human rights, at least to some extent. For example, using the technicalities of Sharia jurisprudence saved Safiya Hussaini and Amina Lawal from death by stoning for adultery in Nigeria—a ‘crime’ supposedly ‘proven’ by their pregnancies. Safiya says she was repeatedly raped, but she was still judged guilty. In many communities, pushing for rights by using religious arguments is more likely to be listened to, heard and accepted, both by those who are marginalised and those in power.

Religion also offers its own possibilities for transformation. In Malawi for example, Anais Bertrand-Dansereau writes about how youth organisations that are faith based can have a more positive approach to sexuality by telling young people that “sex is a gift from God.”  They can raise and discuss issues that others shy away from for fear of being seen as ‘immoral.’ This teaching is restricted to sex within monogamous, heterosexual marriages, so it has its limits in terms of human rights, but still it is instructive.

However, the women and men everywhere who are trying to challenge oppression and discrimination need to be supported directly, not just through religious leaders. I recently heard a woman in the Niger Delta talking about violence against women and girls:

“I now have a platform to challenge our imams about what they say. Mostly our husbands don’t allow us to meet and attend gatherings. They choose which Islamic schools we attend… It’s our imams who are asked to represent us. Women don’t attend Friday prayer – but Muslim women organise too.”

The growing trend in the development industry to work with those in power—meaning men, religious leaders and traditional authorities—at the expense of strengthening the mobilisation of those oppressed is profoundly dangerous. Religion is power and it represents the status quo.

For these and many other reasons, we need to engage with religion, but to do so critically. We also need to fight for, maintain and strengthen secular spaces where people of all faiths and none can come together and organise, outside of the influence that established religion can exert elsewhere.

Do we see transformation in terms of negotiation and compromise or disruption and revolution? This has implications for the nature of the changes we’re working towards and the process of how to get there. Working with religion can be an important stepping stone along the way, but we should not be constrained in our vision or strategy by what is said by holy books or holy men.

After all, in the history of struggle, freedom is only gained when it is demanded. It is achieved when those who are oppressed and their allies rise up and force the hands of those in power. We should not be constrained by religion when we envision and strive for the transformation of society. As the Indian activist, intellectual and architect of the Constitution, Dr B.R. Ambedkar once said, “Put away the orthodox scriptures. Follow justice.”

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.

religious intolerance, freedom of speech and Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus

The HindusThis week, Penguin India agreed to withdraw and destroy all existing copies of The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger within six months. They did so after Shiksha Bachao Andolan, the educational arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (an influential right wing Hindutva group), brought a court case complaining to them that the book contains heresies that insult Hindus. Penguin reached an out of court settlement with them this month, the text of which is here.

I read The Hindus while travelling around my state of Karnataka in 2009 when it was first published. It is a doorstopper of a book but its space in my backpack was well worth it. The book covers centuries of Hindu thought and practice, from the Indus Valley civilisation onwards, focusing particularly on uncovering and making visibility the voices and contributions of women, Dalits and marginalised traditions that have been oppressed, silenced and subordinated by Brahmanical patriarchy. It is a comprehensive account, notable for its readability, that expands the horizons of Hindu scholarship beyond that of the Vedanta to examine the diversity and plurality of the belief systems that were first put under the umbrella of Hinduism by the British colonisers.

Causing religious offence should not be the rationale for infringing freedom of expression and destroying books. Notwithstanding this, I want to emphasise the point that the book is not offensive to Hindus – except if you consider Hinduism to be only the narrow set of beliefs promulgated by the religious right.

That Hindu extremists have succeeded in threatening its publishers to withdraw publication is a serious blow to freedom of expression and to freedom of belief and puts ability to critique and dissent from dominant views at further risk.

The decision comes at a time where the Hindu nationalist project is at its zenith. Their purpose is to cast India as the site of a particular monocultural unchanging Brahmanical Hindu identity which posits anyone who deviates from this as outsiders or influenced by foreign agents. The narrative is that the Muslim invaders should go to Pakistan (they have their country, why can’t we have ours?), women are and should be subordinate to men and all queer people have been infected by Western thinking and practice. This ignores the realities and diversity of those who have lived and thought in the place that is now called India across the generations and traditions. The Hindutva are actively contesting and trying to limit the space for those of different religions, alternate sexual orientations or gender identities and different interpretations of Hinduism.

After all, those in power use not only physical force but also erasure of alternative interpretations and modes of being and silencing of those who subvert, critique and dissent to ensure their version of history and religion prevails. 

The decision has caused a lot of controversy and protest in India.

Academics have signed a statement calling the decision ‘an early salvo in the renewed campaign to drown all questioning voices and prepare the ground for a full-fledged chauvinistic and communal presentation of our history and culture.’

Anmol Vellani of the Indian Foundation for the Arts has started a campaign encouraging people to post their favourite books to Penguin, asking for it too to be destroyed.

Arundhati Roy wrote to Penguin, her publishers, saying ‘you have humiliated yourself abjectly before a fly-by-night outfit’ and hinting she would think twice before going to them with future work. Authors Jyotirmaya Sharma and Siddharth Varadarajan have asked Penguin to nullify their contracts and withdraw and destroy their books too in solidarity and protest. Ms Sharma said “I am a writer. I want to be published. But we have to do this to save the liberal space.

Wendy Doniger released a statement on Facebook saying:

I was thrilled and moved by the great number of messages of support that I received, not merely from friends and colleagues but from people in India that I have never met, who had read and loved The Hindus, and by news and media people, all of whom expressed their outrage and sadness and their wish to help me in any way they could. I was, of course, angry and disappointed to see this happen, and I am deeply troubled by what it foretells for free speech in India in the present, and steadily worsening, political climate. And as a publisher’s daughter, I particularly wince at the knowledge that the existing books (unless they are bought out quickly by people intrigued by all the brouhaha) will be pulped. But I do not blame Penguin Books, India. Other publishers have just quietly withdrawn other books without making the effort that Penguin made to save this book. Penguin, India, took this book on knowing that it would stir anger in the Hindutva ranks, and they defended it in the courts for four years, both as a civil and as a criminal suit.

They were finally defeated by the true villain of this piece—the Indian law that makes it a criminal rather than civil offense to publish a book that offends any Hindu, a law that jeopardizes the physical safety of any publisher, no matter how ludicrous the accusation brought against a book. An example at random, from the lawsuit in question:‘ That YOU NOTICEE has hurt the religious feelings of millions of Hindus by declaring that Ramayana is a fiction. “Placing the Ramayan in its historical contexts demonstrates that it is a work of fiction, created by human authors, who lived at various times……….” (P.662) This breaches section 295A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

Finally, I am glad that, in the age of the Internet, it is no longer possible to suppress a book. The Hindus is available on Kindle; and if legal means of publication fail, the Internet has other ways of keeping books in circulation. People in India will always be able to read books of all sorts, including some that may offend some Hindus.”

Penguin was also the publisher behind Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses which caused its own controversy on publication.

Peter Mayer, its chief executive wrote in 2009 that ‘The elimination of divergent points of view is incompatible with the basic tenets of free societies. We chose to frame the argument as one not only respecting the central importance of free speech, but transcending the case of this one book. The fate of the book affected the future of free inquiry, without which there would be no publishing as we knew it, but also, by extension, no civil society as we knew it.’

Given this stance 25 years ago, why did that same publisher take a different position this time? Was it to avoid the furore that happened before? Is it a broader indication of where we stand now as opposed to then when it comes to freedom of speech?

As Kafila points out, Penguin has given up its country rights in India and the author is now able to circulate it in India. Of course the internet knows no national borders. The book has been put up to download for free in both epub and PDF versions.
UPDATE 17/02/2014: Shuddhabrata Sengupta and Aarti Sethi have now served a legal notice on Penguin (with lawyer Lawrence Liang acting) for violation of freedom of speech and expression and violation of the rights of readers. Read more at Kafila.