Despite the good intentions, the #BringBackOurGirls campaign has produced a number of stupid ideas and gross misinterpretations.
There is singer Chris Brown and the BBC using completely unrelated photos of girls from Guinea-Bissau—some 1,000 miles away from where Boko Haram kidnapped 270 Nigerian girls one month ago—without even asking the photographer for permission.
But it is probably Sen. John McCain who added the least helpful contribution to the debate about how to reunite the girls from Chibok with their families.
“If they knew where they were, I certainly would send in U.S. troops to rescue them, in a New York minute I would, without permission of the host country,” McCain told The Daily Beast. “I wouldn’t be waiting for some kind of permission from some guy named Goodluck Jonathan.”
McCain is, of course, condescendingly referring to Nigeria’s democratically elected president. The good news is that the White House isn’t following the senator’s advice. “At this point, we’re not actively considering the deployment of U.S. forces to participate in a combined rescue mission,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said on May 14.
But McCain is not the only one to use the tragedy of the Chibok abductions to make a political point. There is an argument to be made that the #BringBackOurGirls campaign is directed more at U.S. politicians instead of those who actually have a stake in the matter—like the Nigerian government, Nigerians in general and, of course, Boko Haram.
McCain’s demands stand out as being especially foolish and could have negative consequences for both the abducted girls and the situation in Nigeria.
An impossible hostage rescue
Without a doubt, the U.S. military’s considerable signal intelligence assets and reconnaissance capabilities will most likely be able to determine the location of at least the majority of the abducted girls.
All that has to happen is for a Boko Haram fighter to talk a bit too much on his cell phone. But while intelligence like this could be useful during negotiations with Boko Haram, it could be potentially fatal in a rescue plan.
If Abubakar Shekau, the quite crazy-sounding leader of Boko Haram, has even a shred of operational intelligence, he will have split the girls into several groups. Indeed, in the latest video released by Boko Haram, only about 130 girls are shown, and this group may have been split further since then.
Freeing even one of these groups would be an incredibly hard task.
The girls are likely heavily guarded and Boko Haram will have no qualms about harming them if their hideout is attacked. That even highly trained special forces don’t always succeed in such situations has been demonstrated tragically in Nigeria itself, when a joint operation between British and Nigerian special forces in 2012 led to the death of a British and an Italian hostage held by a group affiliated with Boko Haram.
But even if the U.S. military could do the virtually impossible—after all, that’s what special forces are paid to do—and free one group of girls without getting them killed, nothing will stop Shekau or his deputies from killing the remaining hostages in retribution.
Locating all 300 girls and running simultaneous and successful raids on all their hideouts is just not an option outside a Tom Clancy novel.
Oversimplifying a conflict
But the fallacy of McCain’s proposal goes beyond the acute danger. It also fails to account for the larger picture of the conflict. This abduction is just one manifestation of this war, although a particularly tragic one.
Boko Haram has been waging its war against the Nigerian authorities since 2009. The problem is that the successive escalation of military force against the group has served to increase the violence on both sides. Further, despite having considerable military power and financial resources at his disposal, Nigerian Pres. Goodluck Jonathan has utterly failed to bring the situation under control militarily.
The roots of this date to 2009, as the spiral of violence between Boko Haram and the Nigerian government worsened after the death of Boko Haram’s first leader, Mohammed Yusuf.
Yusuf led Boko Haram since its inception, when it was more of a spiritual movement campaigning for a less corrupt government. After the group became increasingly radicalized—and after a series of violent clashes with the government—Nigerian security forces arrested Yusuf in the city of Maiduguri.
While Yusuf was in police custody, the police killed him.
Several reports, witnesses and video material have proven beyond a doubt that his death was meant as a revenge for the killing of police officers by Boko Haram. It’s also rumored the security services killed Yusuf in the hope of dealing a fatal blow against the operational capacity of the terrorist organization.
But Yusuf’s death only served to radicalize Boko Haram even more, especially by freeing the leadership position for Abubakar Shekau, against whom Yusuf was positively moderate. The murder also serves as a perfect showcase for the abuse that Nigerian police and military regularly commits against members of Boko Haram, their families and completely innocent people who have nothing to do with the terrorist group.
Neither McCain nor the American military seem to get the complexity of this conflict, in which no side is innocent and everybody is a legitimate victim. Even Shekau, who is the most unsympathetic actor in this conflict, has seen his wife and children taken into custody by the security services purely as a means to put pressure on him.
Wading into this situation with guns blazing, like McCain demands, would guarantee to make matters worse. It would also directly contradict U.S. interests, because it would likely lead to Boko Haram targeting American citizens and assets—something that it up until now, it doesn’t do.
Instead of advancing irresponsible and unhelpful populist policies, both McCain and Pres. Barack Obama should engage with the conflict from a perspective of conflict solving.
The kidnapping, while being a horrendous crime, also offers an opportunity to turn the conflict around, and U.S. officials should strongly encourage the Nigerian government to follow it.
For one, it’s an opportunity to split Boko Haram. This is because targeting obviously innocent girls is repulsive to pretty much everyone—including Boko Haram’s Islamist allies.
Even hardcore Islamists are voicing concern over the conduct of their Nigerian brothers in online forums. This is probably why Boko Haram appears to be quite willing to negotiate for a peaceful release of the girls. Some sources suggest that the organisation will demand the release of an equal number of its fighters from custody for releasing the girls.
Pres. Jonathan should go a step further.
He should offer a general amnesty to all people arrested because of their ties to Boko Haram. A huge part of these are likely innocent anyway and he could make forswearing future violence a condition. Such an amnesty has a historical precedence in Nigeria. It was an important part of the peace agreement that ended the insurrection in the Niger Delta.
The amnesty and release of the Chibok girls could be the first step of an engagement with those factions of Boko Haram which are willing to negotiate a truce. It would also represent an opportunity to start over. The government would demonstrate humility and could for the first time in years conceivably claim a fresh start in its relations with the north.
Of course everything would hinge on how the amnesty and subsequent negotiations are implemented, and on a rapid professionalization of the Nigerian security service’s conduct towards civilians in the north east.
But the current situation without a doubt offers the best opportunity in a long time to engage with the conflict in a positive—and not stupid and counterproductive—manner.