05/15/2014 02:29 pm ET Updated Jul 15, 2014

Nigeria's Kidnapped Girls Are Like Canaries in a Coal Mine

The news from Nigeria about the Boko Haram attack on a girls' school in Chibok involves much more than some 276 girls and their families: It is a manifestation of a long-standing and pervasive crisis in Nigeria. Typically, I respond to global news reports by asking, "But what about the women?" Ironically, the kidnapping of Nigerian school-girls has turned the tables: In this case, where the plight of the schoolgirls is heartbreaking, the victimized girls have gained the world's attention -- with "#Bring Back Our Girls" gone viral. Boko Haram's further threats to sell the girls into slavery, including sex trade, has increased the attention, even gaining public statements of protest from other militants and Islamists. The need to find and release the girls safely is understandably the subject of headlines and rallying cries for action.

Now, perversely perhaps, my response is different than adding my voice to the chorus of concerns for the girls: "What about all the many other Nigerians: a nation full of schoolgirls, boys without guidance, young men and women without job prospects, and Nigerians lacking healthcare, security and more?" Early reactions to the Nigerian government's inaction may have questioned whether politicians or military leaders care for, and value, girls and women. Footage of protesting women in red t-shirts suggested the need for women to march and demand government action. In part, that is surely true.

Yet, failures relating to girls and women do not always stem from purposeful discrimination, or even from careless disregard. Though that may have been partly the case initially, sometimes gender analysis of disregarded needs of women reveals systemic failures that affect entire communities or nations. In fact, recognizing more about the Nigerian government suggests political infirmity that is not only about ignoring girls, but also about failing nearly all Nigerians. While Boko Haram has targeted girls, this tragedy is also about something bigger and more threatening -- to Nigerian girls and boys, and to men and women. Culpability lies with the Nigerian government as well as with Boko Haram.

Consider, therefore, the context. The Christian Science Monitor has reported:

The slaughter of many school children in the northeast, reported for nearly a year, had prompted most schools in the northeast to close.

Nigeria's youth unemployment rate now exceeds 25 percent. Warning in March of the dangers of youth unemployment, the Nigerian newspaper ThisDayLive stated:

Available figures from the Bureau of Statistics put the current youth unemployment rate at over 25 percent. The implication is that over 25 million of Nigeria's youth population of about 100 million are unemployed.

The recent tragic events expose the critical importance of good governance. As its politicians and bureaucrats are neither accountable to, nor in touch with, their own people, Nigeria suffers from failures of representation and democracy. Freedom House has characterized recent elections as "chaotic affairs marked by vote rigging and violence." Men who have bought and fought their way to power do not respond to constituents. Further indicative of a lack of representation, women constitute barely more than six percent of Nigeria's parliament. Nigeria's level of women's representation is among the worst worldwide -- ranked 131 out of 147 by the Inter-Parliamentary Union. As has been visibly demonstrated by women's leadership and numbers in organized protests, women are a strong force in Nigeria's civil society. Yet, until women gain access to political power, they will exercise little influence over government policies, delivery of services, or resource allocations.

Overall, Freedom House's most recent assessment of Nigeria states:

Nigeria received a downward trend arrow due to continued rampant corruption, the suppression of civil society during fuel-subsidy protests as well as restrictions on its activity in the north, and limitations on freedom of movement as a result of violence associated with the militant group Boko Haram.

In fact, Nigeria is known for Olympic levels of corruption. In Transparency International's rankings of how corrupt a nation's public sector is perceived to be, with one being the least corrupt, Nigeria holds an abysmal rank of 144 out of 177. Hence, no one doing business in Nigeria, whether multinational oil companies or cellphone providers, expects to initiate or close a deal without making extra, off-budget payments along the way. Beyond increasing the costs of doing business, and diverting funds that rightfully belong to Nigerian citizens to pay for such government responsibilities as education and roads, or police and military training, corruption has also been undermining the government's capacity to deliver.

As if weak democracy, corruption and poor governance were not enough, an exacerbating factor is Nigeria's political loyalties and divisions split along religious lines -- particularly Christians and Muslims. While the Nigerian government has failed to alleviate poverty and extend economic opportunities to young adults throughout the country, it has thereby created an enabling environment for extremists' recruitment in the Muslim north. Although the government's inaction before and since the kidnappings may have started as a lack of political engagement, it has also exposed the government's inability to extend security to all of its citizens.

The kidnapped girls and their families are undeniably victims of a heinous crime. Yet according to the Christian Science Monitor, violent militants have spent the last five years killing thousands of people, "including hundreds of children in schools, and 1,500 in the last four months." For those concerned that the world often overlooks the needs of girls and women, there is some irony that the girls' kidnapping has finally fixed the world's attention on Nigeria.

Now that Nigeria is in the headlines, it is time to recognize the impacts of corruption, and what enables it: American companies export oil from Nigeria. As the largest importer of Nigeria's crude oil, the U.S. accounts for 40 percent of Nigeria's total oil exports.

So while many urge the U.S. to help the Nigerian government save the kidnapped girls, perhaps we should also redouble efforts to deprive Nigerian politicians of the spoils that enable them to ignore their own people and to shirk their responsibilities to deliver effective governance.