Opinion: How to help Nigerians defeat Boko Haram

Schoolgirls from the Nigerian village of Chibok who escaped from Boko Haram kidnappers wait to talk with the governor of Borno state in Maiduguri in June.
(AFP / Getty Images)

Satellite images showing the catastrophic devastation of two Nigerian towns by Boko Haram put the Islamist militant group back in the news Thursday. “One town, Doron Baga, has been almost wiped off the map, with about 3,100 houses burned down, while 620 houses were set afire in nearby Baga,” reports the Los Angeles Times’ Robyn Dixon. The attack, said Amnesty International spokesman Daniel Eyre, “represents a deliberate attack on civilians whose homes, clinics and schools are now burnt-out ruins.”

Think about that. An entire town almost wiped off a map by terrorists.

Just last Wednesday, Okello Kelo Sam argued in our Op-Ed pages that it’s time to remind a distracted world that Boko Haram must be defeated. While we were distracted by other news in 2014, he wrote that, “Boko Haram only upped the ante in pursuit of its goal of establishing a fundamentalist Islamic state in northeastern Nigeria and eliminating Western influence in its schools. The militants, declared a terrorist group by the U.S. in 2013, continued to attack Nigerian villagers, killing some and abducting others. The New York Times reported a month ago that Boko Haram ‘was able to strike at will’ in northeastern Nigeria.”

Of course, that was the same day of the terrorist attack on the publication Charlie Hebdo in Paris and we were distracted again.


When Boko Haram abducted more than 200 schoolgirls last year, social media lighted up with a plea: #BringBackOurGirls. Sam’s 2015 plea: Continue to leverage social media in an effort to raise awareness and #RememberOurGirls.

Another tactic: Keep empowering Nigerian women.

As Malcolm Potts and Alisha Graves wrote in an op-ed last May:

“In a video released on May 4, Boko Haram’s despicable leader, Abubakar Shekau, says: ‘Girls must give their hands in marriage because they are our slaves. We would marry them out at the age of 9. We would marry them out at the age of 12.’

“As despicable as Shekau is, he does understand something: The schooling of girls has the power to transform a culture, which makes it a threat to his kind of repressive fundamentalism. Like blowing up cellphone towers and power plants, kidnapping girls as they take their final exams is a strategy that makes sense if the goal is to stop progress. ...

“History has taught us again and again that unchecked fanatics can bring immeasurable suffering. Even Al Qaeda has disowned Boko Haram. For USAID, UNICEF and charities such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the unspeakable crime of capturing teenage girls and forcing them into marriage should be seen as a sort of Pearl Harbor: an urgent call to action. But in this case, sending troops would make the situation worse. Investing in family planning, agriculture and girls are the weapons that can defeat Boko Haram.”

Girls as weapons to defeat terrorists? If that sounds unlikely, consider yet another op-ed from last year’s Opinion pages, this one by 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee:

As a woman and a mother, I pray for the safe return of all the abducted girls. I also applaud the strength of the women who continue to fight for them. They are African women -- women who can function under the harshest conditions, who in the face of murder and rape continually stand up to fight. Strong. Resilient. Powerful. It is time for the world to put away the image of African women as victims and see them as the everyday heroes they are.”


Follow Alexandra Le Tellier on Twitter @alexletellier.