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What We Owe Nigeria’s Kidnapped Schoolgirls

Rather than issuing a blank check for military intervention, we need to stay focused on the girls and their well-being, now and into the future.

People worldwide are calling for action to bring back the kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria. But concern for the girls demands that we think carefully about the harmful consequences of proposed solutions – especially those calling for US military intervention.

It is a nightmare that, at least for a moment, gripped the world’s attention. Hundreds of girls were kidnapped from their school in Nigeria by the armed fundamentalist group Boko Haram. The group later released a video of some of the girls, draped in dark colors and seated on the ground. Their families scoured this footage, searching their daughters’ faces for answers to their questions. Is she hurt? Is she afraid?

The girls’ faces are haunting. Their families are desperate. The failure of the Nigerian authorities to respond adequately is infuriating. The justifiable reaction has been a global outcry to Bring Back Our Girls.

But the safety of the girls and their communities demands more from us. It demands that we think long and hard about the consequences of the actions we call for and not merely implore our governments to “Do Something.” After all, for the US, that “something” has been to fast-track plans for militarizing its engagement with Africa, primarily through AFRICOM, the US military command for the continent.

Rather than issuing a blank cheque for military intervention, we need to stay focused on the girls and their well-being, now and into the future. Those are certainly the priorities of the grassroots activists in Nigeria who have staged waves of protests and sit-ins. When they issued the call to Bring Back Our Girls, it had a clear target: their own government, tasked with and failing to protect their rights.

For that reason, some have condemned as naïve and damaging the well-intentioned appeals of those outside of Nigeria demanding action from the US and other foreign powers. Writer Jumoke Balogun points out, “Your calls for the United States to get involved in this crisis undermines the democratic process in Nigeria and co-opts the growing movement against the inept and kleptocratic Jonathan administration.” Those of us outside of Nigeria would do well to think beyond retweeting hashtags and to listen closely to these warnings.

US military footprint in Africa

Like all US military ventures, AFRICOM is a vehicle to secure US economic and security interests in the region. The fact that AFRICOM is not a word one hears often in media and policy discussions is a testament to how embedded the US military project is, both in Africa and in our consciousness. It strikes few of us as unsettling that the US and other military powers operate bases around the world, an enduring footprint of colonial and unequal power relations.

The latest news is that the US military has launched a Predator drone to conduct surveillance in the search for the girls. But militarization will not make the girls of Borno State and their families safer. Just ask families in Yemen about US drones. Those drone strikes, many originating from a US military base in Djibouti, terrorize communities, assassinate people with no due process and have killed bystanders, including children.

Drone enthusiasts realize that they are losing the battle for global public opinion. More and more people are learning about the devastating impacts of drone strikes on communities that live in fear of the next random explosion. Often, these realizations come from the inventive tactics of grassroots activists like those who printed and swathed an entire Pakistani field in the single image of a child, a stark reminder to a drone pilot thousands of miles away of the consequences of pushing that button.

It is no surprise that the US military would seize upon the abducted Nigerian schoolgirls as a public relations antidote to manufacture a softer side to drones. What better face than that of a vulnerable girl to signal the benevolent intent of US troops in Africa? In fact, the search for these girls is not the first time that AFRICOM has put a humanitarian face on expanding the US military footprint. Across the region, US military delivery of mosquito nets and prenatal vitamins softens people’s realization that the US military is there to stay – nice and close to known oil reserves. As Joeva Rock writes, “These projects are more like a Trojan Horse: dressed up as gifts, they establish points of entry on the continent when and where they may be needed.”

US “humanitarian intervention” has already benefited Boko Haram. In 2011, a US/NATO attack destroyed the Libyan state in the name of democracy and human rights. The weapons given to rebels there have since scattered, ending up in the hands of groups like Boko Haram. The more that we militarize the response to the girls’ kidnapping, the more we run the risk of triggering new “unintended consequences,” including more guns turning up in the wrong hands.

The erosion of civilian responses to catastrophe

We have become accustomed to seeing the military encroach on formerly civilian realms of policing, search and rescue operations, disaster relief, development and more. The militarization of a wide array of government functions serves to keep “defense” budgets flush even through government spending cuts.

The pivotal shift came hours after the attacks of 9/11, when the Bush Administration chose to define a crime against humanity as an act of war to justify invading Iraq and Afghanistan. A robust rule-of-law response upholding human rights would have entailed broad international cooperation in conducting an investigation, arrests, trial and prosecution of the perpetrators. Instead, the US declared war, setting us all on a course that now makes it hard to imagine what our world might look like had the US pursued justice instead of endless war in the wake of the atrocity.

We soon saw disaster militarism come into its own after Hurricane Katrina, when the military—in violation of a founding principle of US law—patrolled the streets of New Orleans, in essence occupying the flooded city. Like the grateful families accepting mosquito nets from US troops in Niger, only a few in New Orleans questioned the presence of soldiers on their streets in the days after the hurricane. In more and more cities across the US, people are witnessing the dramatic militarization of their police.

And now, when Boko Haram has committed what is so obviously a criminal act, we struggle to imagine a solution that does not entail Predator surveillance or US boots on the ground. And the US military remains a hammer in search of a nail, only too eager to exploit every opportunity to deepen its hold in the region.

Women are not pawns – they are leaders

If an unqualified call to Bring Back Our Girls opens the door to the “Trojan horse” of humanitarian intervention, then what is the solution?

Is it to rely on the Nigerian military to act? It is, after all, a primary obligation of every government to protect its citizens. Yet many in Nigeria, including family members of the kidnapped girls, have faulted their government both for inaction and for repressive tactics that have only emboldened Boko Haram.

It took the abduction of more than 300 girls in a single night for the world to take notice, but women and girls have long been targets of Nigeria’s brutal conflict with Boko Haram. And they are not merely civilians caught in the cross-fire: violence against women is a key tactic of military cultures the world over. Nigeria is no exception.

Like Boko Haram itself, the Nigerian military has waged its battles on the bodies of women and girls, reportedly raping and kidnapping female family members of suspected Boko Haram members to attack the group as a whole.

In 2011, a leader in Borno State, where the girls were abducted, told a journalist, “We initially thought the military would employ logical strategies to put an end to this cycle of violence… [but] the soldiers went from door to door killing innocent people, they broke into homes stealing property and raping young women.” Boko Haram leader Abubakr Shekau promised revenge in a video, warning, “Since you are now holding our women, just wait and see what will happen to your own women.”

“Our women” versus “your women” – one would be hard pressed to find a clearer demonstration of women being reduced to pawns. That is what Boko Haram has done to these teenagers and what we risk perpetuating with ill-conceived military solutions. Where is the solution that brings them back home, without subjecting their communities to more militarism and violence?

Unfortunately, the May 17 international security summit on Nigeria sought a regional strategy to counter Boko Haram, without considering these questions. Representatives from Benin, Cameroon, Chad, France, Niger and Nigeria, the European Union, the United Kingdom and the United States gathered without so much as consulting those most threatened by the crisis: namely, the people of northeastern Nigeria. There was neither one woman from Nigeria at the meeting nor any representatives of the affected communities.

The UK will host a follow-up summit in June, and it is crucial that Nigerian women’s organizations be represented there. Organizations like the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom have issued a call to ensure that the UK includes Nigerian women’s civil society organizations.

These women are the ones who have been most vocal in demanding a peaceful resolution. They stand as role models for Nigeria’s girls in their determination to face down police harassment and government denials and to galvanize a nationwide movement to demand the return of the abducted girls.

Bring Back Our Girls is more than the rallying cry of desperate families. It signals a wider demand throughout Nigerian society for their government to prioritize girls, their right to education, and gender equality for all. We should call for actions that advance those goals.