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The menace of Boko Haram

Published on May 21, 2014 6:02 AM
Indian beachgoers pass a sand sculpture, calling for the release of kidnapped school girls in Nigeria, which has been created by sand artist Sudarsan Pattnaik on the beach in Puri, some 65 kms from Bhubaneswar on May 10, 2014. -- FILE PHOTO: AFP

The seizure of hundreds of schoolgirls by a Nigerian extremist group named Boko Haram has repelled people as a viciously inhumane act. It began as a localised event in a running Islamic insurgency against the government of a Christian president, Mr Goodluck Jonathan, but became a cause celebre when President Barack Obama lent his voice to an international campaign for their release. Intercessions may have worked as Boko Haram is believed ready to exchange the girls' freedom for members held in detention.

This is not the end of the matter, even if the girls are home safe. The kidnap was episodic of a war for legitimacy that has scarred Nigeria. Boko Haram wants the Islamic north excised from the Christian south, as the group says the former has been kept in penury by a government for the few, even as the oil-rich country has enjoyed high economic growth. This is the old story of Africa - tribal and religious divisions to entrench the ruling class, mismanagement and plunder.

If this was a matter of political disaffection fed by unresolved grievances, it should be left to the Nigerian people to sort out. But it gets complicated as Boko Haram is said to espouse jihadism and the mental enslavement of women, somewhat like the Taleban of Afghanistan. There is a fine line between prosecuting an insurgency to gain social justice and championing a doctrine for which pogroms and servitude are means to an end. Before it seized the girls, Boko Haram had been accused of killing Christians and burning churches, aside from waging guerilla war. But, again, religious strife if contained within is for the people to resolve.

The difficulty in grappling with the group's emergence in the Islamic activist ummah is knowing where the fight for justice ends and religious extremism corrupting the good name of mainstream Islam begins. If the latter becomes dominant, the world would be their stage and Boko Haram would not be unlike extreme jihadist organisations which have sown discord and misery in West Asia, the Maghreb, Pakistan and South-east Asia.

The United States with the support of France and Britain sent to Nigeria a vanguard of security and military people to help in the search for the girls. It should keep to its brief. A meeting of West African nations has declared war on Boko Haram since it has moved beyond Nigeria to instigate Muslims in neighbouring countries. The insertion of old colonial powers into African affairs carries risks. This is a situation that demands sensitivity in the handling because so little is known of motives and agendas. Best to stay focused on the task at hand: Save the girls, and counter the pernicious influence of their abductors.