How Nigerian police also detained women and children as weapon of war

Before Boko Haram started routinely kidnapping girls in northern Nigeria, more than 100 relatives of militants were held by authorities. Their leader vowed to retaliate

Elizabeth Pearson and Jacob Zenn, Tuesday 6 May 2014 14.05 BST

Demonstrators opposite the Nigerian high commission in London calling for the government to step up efforts to rescue the schoolgirls.
Demonstrators opposite the Nigerian high commission in London call for the government to step up efforts to rescue the missing schoolgirls. Photograph: Ruth Whitworth/Demotix/Corbis

The gunmen seized Hajja while she was picking corn in a field near her home in a small village in north-eastern Nigeria in July 2013. The 19-year-old had no choice but to follow her captors, insurgents with the Islamist group Boko Haram. It was the beginning of a three-month ordeal in which she was forced to convert to Islam, to cook, clean, and march.

In the worst moments she was beaten and threatened with execution. She was also made to lure soldiers into positions where they could be targeted, and watch as her Boko Haram abductors attacked them.

We know what happened to Hajja only because she managed to escape. But we also know that her experience is not unique. The kidnapping of more than 270 girls from Chibok three weeks ago has captured the world’s attention, but Boko Haram, whose name means “western education is sinful”, has been systematically taking women from schools or villages across north-eastern Nigeria since May last year.

The town of Konduga in Borno State was all but razed to the ground in an attack in February – after which insurgents left with 20 girls. Two weeks later, at the Federal government college in Buni Yade in Yobe state, Boko Haram fighters murdered dozens of male students in their beds and captured at least 16 girls. More than a dozen young women are missing from Gwoza, where Hajja was taken, and families from across the region say they have lost their daughters.

Boko Haram’s move towards using the kidnapping of women as a tactic appears to have come hand-in-hand with a similar strategy deployed by the Nigerian authorities. From December 2011, the Nigerian police began to detain the wives and children of militants leaders – possibly to put pressure on the group, possibly to bring about negotiations.

Whatever the reasons, from 2011 to 2012 more than 100 Boko Haram family members were arrested, with no evidence to suggest they had any part in Boko Haram’s crimes. Among them were relatives of Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau.

A grab made on May 5, 2014 from a video by Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau
Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau in a video released by the group. Photograph: Ho/AFP/Getty Images

These detentions became a source of grievance for Shekau, and were repeatedly mentioned in a series of video messages in 2012. One Shekau film threatens: “Since you are now holding our women, just wait and see what will happen to your own women… to your own wives according to sharia law.”

In 2013 the kidnappings began. In May of that year a film released by Boko Haram shows the leader alongside a split-screen image of a group of captured women and children, silently huddled together. Shekau says, “We kidnapped some women and children… including teenage girls”. This was payback, he added. In another video message he promised to make female hostages his servants if certain conditions, including the release from prison of Boko Haram members and their wives, were not met. A tit-for-tat cycle of arrests and abductions was established, with Shekau explicitly threatening the kidnap of more girls.

Video messaging is a key tool in Boko Haram’s propaganda war and the medium chosen by Shekau to claim responsibility for the abduction of the Chibok girls, announcing that “God instructed me to sell them, they are his properties and I will carry out his instructions”. This message echoes a film released by Boko Haram in March, in which he talked of kidnapped girls as the “spoils of war”. At the same time, local sources report that Boko Haram told the Chibok schoolgirls they were “infidels” for attending schools where western education, including English, is taught. They were warned they would have to pay jizyah, a form of tax from non-Muslims, or be raped as compensation. Just weeks after these threats, the girls were taken.

The scale of this kidnapping, with some reports that as many as 300 girls were taken, makes it unlike anything seen so far in northern Nigeria, or anywhere else. It has woken up the world to what is happening in the region, with pledges of help from the US and UK. But still the girls are missing and families have little faith in the Nigerian military, or the government, to find them.

Nigeria's president Goodluck Jonathan on Monday 5 May.
Nigeria’s president Goodluck Jonathan on Monday 5 May. Photograph: Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters

On Sunday, in his first comments on the kidnapping, president Goodluck Jonathan said the government was doing all it could, but admitted the military did not know where the girls are. A leader of the widespread protest movement to bring back the girls has reportedly been arrested. All this has done little to reassure the community of Chibok, whose elders have publicly expressed a lack of confidence in the efforts taken so far. Others across Nigeria are critical too.

Near Chibok, a rescue becomes increasingly difficult as the girls are thought to have been separated and taken to several different locations. Parents have mounted their own search efforts in the Sambisa forest, without success. Boko Haram militants know the area better than both the military and locals.

Time is not on the Chibok families’ side. Nor is it on the side of the government. With more than 1,500 deaths so far this year, 2014 is the most violent yet in Boko Haram’s insurgency. The country is preparing for presidential elections in 2015, and there are no signs that the insurgents will be “crushed” as President Jonathan has promised, by then. Worse, the government strategy of pressuring Boko Haram through arresting family members has backfired.

Elizabeth Pearson is a freelance radio journalist who has recently completed an MA in International Conflict Studies at King’s College London. Jacob Zenn is an analyst of African and Eurasian Affairs for the Jamestown Foundation in Washington DC

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