Magazine article The New Yorker

Missing

Magazine article The New Yorker

Missing

Article excerpt

MISSING

--Alexis Okeowo

Yakubu Kabu, a Nigerian civil servant and the father of one of the more than three hundred girls abducted from a school in the village of Chibok, was struck by the fact that the first real news of his daughter came from the Boko Haram terrorists who had taken her, and not from the government. To many, it was emblematic of the general mishandling of the case. Last week, after a month of conflicting reports from President Goodluck Jonathan's administration, the governor of the northeastern state of Borno, where Chibok is situated, arranged for some of the parents to watch a video released by Boko Haram, to see if they could identify their daughters. It had been broadcast on national television, but both electricity and Internet access are in short supply in Chibok. They had already heard, though, that Boko Haram's leader, Abubakar Shekau, claimed in the video to have "liberated" the Christian girls by converting them to Islam. The parents rode in buses for the eighty-mile journey to Maiduguri, the state capital, with staff members from the school, some girls who had escaped the kidnappers, and armed vigilantes serving as guards.

Shekau had taken responsibility for the attack in an earlier video, but the second was more chilling. In it, more than a hundred girls, draped in hijabs, huddle in a clearing of scrubland and recite verses from the Koran. One nervously says they are being fed and are unharmed. When Kabu recognized his fifteen-year-old daughter among them, he wept. "I don't know whether she's healthy, or she's not healthy, whether she's well, or she's not well," Kabu, who is a Christian, said. "I cannot tell anything." Seventy-seven of the girls in the video have been identified. The whereabouts of all the girls are unknown.

The government has shown a notable lack of resolve throughout the four years that it has battled Boko Haram, and the fate of the Chibok girls has become a symbol of Nigeria's weaknesses and divisions. Jonathan, a Christian from the predominately Christian south, has largely treated the insurgency as the responsibility of Muslim leaders in the north, which has lagged far behind in education and economic development. Mohammed Yusuf, the founder of Boko Haram, successfully exploited that situation when, more than a decade ago, he began speaking out against government corruption and calling for a fundamentalist Islamic state. Yusuf was killed, in police custody, in 2009; Shekau succeeded him, and the group declared open war. Since then, thousands of people have died in Boko Haram attacks and government reprisals.

The local media gave the group its name, which means "Western education is forbidden," based on Yusuf's often expressed anger that the members of Nigeria's political class attended Western universities. Schools remain a prime target: the group has routinely kidnapped and forcibly recruited some students, and has killed others. In February, fifty-nine died in an attack on a high school, many of them burned to death. But the influence of Western education was not the sole motivation for the Chibok abductions. In the video, Shekau demands a deal: imprisoned Boko Haram militants in exchange for the girls. He has asked for similar trades before, but it seems clear now that he wants to use Boko Haram's increased notoriety to show that it can force the government to accede to its demands. …

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