To Save the Girls, the World Must Help Nigeria

The recent kidnapping by the jihadist group Boko Haram of hundreds of girls from a school in northeastern Nigeria shocks our sensibilities. Wanting only an education, the girls are now being held in parts unknown, and their captors have threatened to sell them into slavery. Like other girls before them, they are likely being sexually abused and forced to marry members of the radical group.

This is an intolerable offense against humanity. If the corrupt and indifferent Nigerian state cannot or will not intervene, other nations must. At stake are not just the lives and well being of these poor girls, but the future of Nigeria and other African states.

Boko Haram has declared war against the Nigerian state. The group was founded officially in 2002 when its leader, Muhammad Yusuf, sought to establish Shari'ah law in Nigeria's largely Muslim north. One of the major themes of Yusuf's preaching was his outright rejection of Western education. (In the local Hausa language, Boko Haram means, roughly, "Western education is sinful.") The group became more visible and active in 2009, when it clashed with state forces and Yusuf died while in state custody.

Boko Haram, which appeared at first to be a moderate separatist or jihadist movement, became more militant after the killing of its leader. Violence heightened and over the last few months included the bombing of a motor park in the federal capital of Abuja. Although some claim that Boko Haram is an anti-Christian movement, the group does not target other religions as much as it does the secular state of Nigeria.

Boko Haram insidiously employs Islam to justify its crimes, but larger groups or Islamic institutions in Nigeria do not sanction its activities in any way. Moreover, the group is overwhelmingly opposed by Nigerian society. In fact, when security forces fail to contain Boko Haram's violence, citizens often engage them at the risk of their own lives because they recognize how high the stakes in the current situation are.

Because they are opposed to Western education and the education of girls in particular, the jihadists have cowardly targeted girls' schools. Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau actually boasts that he is going to sell the recently kidnapped girls into slavery. Again, this particular approach to Islam does not have widespread support in the area. Sadly, it does have a disproportionately large effect on Nigerian society.

It's important to understand that Boko Haram did not emerge in a vacuum. It is almost a direct result of the failed state that is corrupt and unable to provide even a basic level of safety and services to the country's citizens, from education, to healthcare, roads, electricity, and even sanitation.

The Nigerian government's response to Boko Haram is a prime example of its incompetence. Security forces conducted their own rampage, which often resulted in the deaths of innocent people throughout the north and validated the militant group's claim that the government is illegitimate, oppressive, and exploitative. It also precipitated an escalation of the militant group's violence and the deaths of more innocents.

It wasn't always this way. Despite lackluster performance, the leaders of newly independent Nigeria in the 1960s were far better than those who govern the country now. The decline of the Nigerian state that began during the military regimes of 1966-1979 and 1983-1998 has reached its climax in the current social and political order.

Today, Nigeria is totally unable to control its borders with Cameroon, Chad and Niger. Consequently, many foreigners come into the country to fight for Boko Haram. What began as a local phenomenon has become an international movement that includes outside jihadi groups. They have attracted people, training, and funding from all over the Islamic world, and evidence points to the Al-Qaeda establishing itself in the border area.

If law and order breaks down in Nigeria, the consequences will reverberate beyond West Africa. The West can expect a large flow of refugees to other countries, further destabilizing an already fragile region, and creating another safe haven for fundamentalist jihadis to launch attacks on an international scale. This is not simply a Nigerian affair. In the absence of competent government, the international community must intervene.

The solution lies not just in targeting Boko Haram, but in strengthening social institutions, embarking on literacy programs that will liberate minds from forms of religious fanaticism, reaffirming the secular nature of the state, providing strong leadership and competency, and educating citizens on their rights, obligations, and duties. Nigeria must embark on a new nation-building project that will enable it to correct the mistakes of the past and set itself on the path to progress.

Nigeria, which GDP recently exceeded that of South Africa, enjoys the greatest wealth of human and natural resources on the continent. Many believe that the nation can achieve greatness in the modern world. However, Nigeria has not demonstrated its capability because of failures to uphold any kind of social contract with its citizens. There is hope that the conversation going on now at the national confab in Abuja may lead to recommendations that can move the country forward.

But first, we must free these innocent girls from the horrors they are experiencing at the hands of Boko Haram. It is surely a global task and concern. The world cannot leave the issue to the Nigerian state alone.