100 Days of Violence, Rumors, and Loss

Since Boko Haram seized the girls of Chibok, Nigeria has racked up the world’s highest terrorism fatality rate -- and the country is beset by nasty conspiracy theories about who is to blame.

In the more than 100 days since the girls of Chibok were kidnapped, the world's attention has moved on to other stories -- but Nigeria's situation has deteriorated at a dizzying pace. This year has been the most violent period in the five-year insurgency of the militant Islamist group known as Boko Haram. A report released this week by the risk consultancy Maplecroft found that Nigeria leads the world in terrorism fatality rates: On average, there were 24 deaths per incident out of 146 recorded through June. Adding to that list, Boko Haram killed dozens and forced some 15,000 people to flee last weekend as it took over the northern town of Damboa. And tragically, reports indicate that 11 parents of the Chibok girls have died since the kidnappings, some of them in attacks.

It seems each day comes with a new report of a similar incident. 

But the violence, kidnappings, and death wrought by the group aren't the only problems facing Africa's most-populous nation: The perception among a growing number of Nigerians is that the government, led by President Goodluck Jonathan, is unable to handle Boko Haram. It has not been able to rescue Chibok's lost girls, nor has it been able to prevent further attacks. This week, the government pledged to form a 2,800-person regional security force, along with Cameroon, Chad, and Niger, to get rid of Boko Haram -- but cooperation has been mooted before, with little effect.

At stake in the government's response is nothing less than the future of the country. "The geo-strategic consequences of this are the most critical," says James Hall, a military analyst and former defense attaché with the U.K. High Commission in Abuja. "The country's long-term stability and viability is key. The question is, can the government manage it?"

The question has many Nigerians on edge. Tension is palpable, fed by conspiracy theories about who is ultimately responsible for the Chibok situation -- and Boko Haram more broadly. "It's difficult sometimes to think rationally about it," says blogger and student Zainab Usman, who has attended many events in Abuja as part of the "Bring Back Our Girls" campaign launched after the kidnappings. "It's very difficult to feel positive."


Bring Back Our Girls, which went viral globally on the internet and drew people to the streets in Nigeria, still attracts supporters, Usman says, though perhaps not the numbers it once did. People gather, for instance, at Abuja's Unity Fountain, wearing red and demanding that the government do more to find the kidnapped girls.

But in May, another group turned up unexpectedly. The members wore white t-shirts bearing the slogan "Return Our Girls Now," and they carried banners with pictures of the president on them. "It was very tense," Usman says. "They were very aggressive, saying that we should not be against the government. They shoved people and broke chairs and threatened us. It was only because we remained passive that there wasn't worse violence."

Since then, the demonstrators in white have maintained a counter-protest at Unity Fountain. The group is small, but it isn't alone in believing that too much criticism has been hurled at Jonathan's administration: Government supporters say the Bring Back Our Girls campaign, and the consequent attention it has brought to Nigeria, are the work of opposition activists who are bent on removing the president before elections in February 2015. They point to protest leader Oby Ezekwesili, a former minister in the government of Olusegun Obansanjo. A one-time political mentor of Jonathan's,  Obansanjo publicly and harshly criticized his former protégé last year, saying Jonathan was being "overwhelmed" by Boko Haram.

For their part, supporters of Bring Back Our Girls say the group in white is being paid by the government. And Ezekwesili recently took to the BBC's "HARDtalk" to deny she has any affiliation with the opposition to Jonathan.

At the heart of the two sides' dispute is the matter of what, exactly, Jonathan's government has done since the kidnappings occurred. It has been reported that, at first, the president refused to believe the girls had actually been kidnapped. The first lady of Nigeria, Patience Jonathan, was even accused of ordering the arrest of two activists from Chibok for maligning the presidency. (She later denied that she had done so.)

In the weeks since, the president has endeavored to show that his government is indeed working to bring the girls home -- even without offering tangible proof of this being the case. Jonathan hired a prestigious public relations firm from the United States to improve Nigeria's image. And he wrote in a June 26 op-ed in the Washington Post that his government was engaged in "continuing efforts" to find the girls, in which "security and intelligence services have spared no resources." He provided no specific details about these efforts but insisted, "My silence as we work to accomplish the task at hand is being misused by partisan critics to suggest inaction or even weakness."

Government advisers are also quick to deny accusations that the government has done nothing. "Those saying so do not know the real truth," Fatima Akilu, an assistant to the country's national security advisor, told an audience at London's Frontline Club in June.

Reporters in the northern city of Maiduguri say that the Nigerian army has engaged the militants but not been able to make significant progress. The United States and United Kingdom are providing support as well, but there is no clear evidence yet of whether their efforts are making a difference.


Some government supporters even see a broad conspiracy at work: It isn't just Bring Back Our Girls that's a problem -- Boko Haram and the Chibok incident are all a part of a plot to discredit Jonathan ahead of February's polls. Jonathan overturned a longstanding, though unwritten, political deal that saw the presidency rotating between Nigeria's north and south after two presidential terms. (A southern Christian, Jonathan was the vice president while northern Muslim Umaru Yar'Adua was in the president's office. When Yar'Adua died in 2010, Jonathan took over, and he then ran to hold onto the presidency the following year.) Many in the south are sympathetic to at least some parts of the view espoused by Jonathan allies who see Boko Haram and everything that comes of it as an attempt to destroy their president -- and ultimately return power to the north.

Violence has helped to breed further rumors and allegations. On Wednesday, two bombs went off in the northern city of Kaduna, killing around 50 people. People had gathered to hear the Ramadan sermon of the Islamic scholar Sheikh Dahiru Bauchi. In attendance was the country's former military ruler and three-time opposition candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, who is from the north. After the sermon, as people were leaving, "the attacker approached the car of Sheikh Bauchi trying to get to it," says journalist Abdullahi Kaura Abubakar. "But the crowd was big, and he could not get through. Without realizing, they held the attacker away."

And then he detonated the bomb. "There were bits of bodies in the street," Abubakar says, "bits of hands, legs, blood everywhere." Soon after, news came that another bomb had detonated, aimed at Buhari's convoy as it drove away from Kaduna. The former general's car was peppered with bullets by gunmen who were also part of the ambush.

Both Sheikh Bauchi and Buhari survived, but some members of their retinue were killed. Although the bombings bore the characteristics of Boko Haram attacks, some have speculated that they were instead tied up with politics. Others believed this immediately -- and acted.

A large group of young men attacked the army and the police in Kaduna, accusing them of being in league with the attackers. The police pushed them back with teargas and bullets. "They attacked the security because they believe that this was an assassination attempt by the southern government on the most popular politician in the north," Abubakar says.

"Now no one trusts each other," he adds


Somewhere in the middle of this is Boko Haram. The group continues to mystify many Nigerians, which only encourages more conspiracy theories that nobody can quell. "Nobody knows who or what they really are," Usman says. "They are able to one minute be bombing Abuja, the next attacking a bridge in the north, the next assassinating someone. How can one group do all this?"

In the three months since the Chibok girls were taken, Boko Haram has not let up its pace of violence. A crowded market in Maiduguri was bombed in July, killing at least 50. In June, as suicide bomber killed people watching a World Cup game in Adamawa. Soon after, Boko Haram marked Nigeria's game against Argentina by blowing up a shopping plaza in Abuja. Another market in the religiously divided city of Jos was bombed in May, and the same month, members of the group also shot dead the emir of Gwoza, who who opposed them in the country's northeast.

Today, many towns and villages in the north remain under intense threat. Boko Haram fighters are believed to be holed up in the Sambisa Forest or the Mandara Mountains, remote border regions on the fringes of government control. When fighters take over towns, they raise black flags. They then reportedly extort resources from the residents, perhaps kidnap young men and women, and pray, before withdrawing back to the bush. By the time the country's poorly equipped military arrive, the militants have disappeared. (And, human rights organizations say, government soldiers don't comprise a clear force for good; there have been accusations of civilian massacres by the army as it looks for Boko Haram.)

On Tuesday, some of the family members of the kidnapped girls in Chibok met with Jonathan in Abuja. Ayuba Lawson, a father of one of the girls, told the BBC that the president shed tears when they told their stories. "He was touched and all who were there were touched," Lawson said.

Meanwhile, however, community leaders in Chibok also told the Associated Press that their town remains "under siege." 

Quentin Leboucher/AFP/Getty Images


Longform's Picks of the Week

The best stories from around the world.

Every weekend, Longform highlights its favorite international articles of the week. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform's new app and read all of the latest in-depth stories from dozens of magazines, including Foreign Policy.


What's The Matter with Russia? Keith Gessen, Foreign Affairs.

How Soviet history helps explain Russia and the crisis in Ukraine.

Although an expansionist foreign policy is one ideological legacy of Soviet communism, so is a belief in a strong social safety net, egalitarianism, and the dignity of workers. If those more progressive values can survive the corruption and cronyism that suffuse Russian economic and political life today, Putinism's internal contradictions might become more apparent. Putin's regime stands on a Soviet material base that is rapidly crumbling, and his political style, with its gaudy embrace of the very Western consumerism it claims to disdain -- Brezhnev would never have cruised around Moscow in a convoy of Mercedes-Benzes -- might over time come to seem fundamentally alien to the Russian body politic.

The drunk, jingoistic computer programmer I sat next to on that Aeroflot flight is certainly one face of the new Russia. But so are the tens of thousands of people who poured into the streets of Moscow in March to protest the Russian military incursion into Crimea. With Putin cracking down on dissent and squeezing the remnants of the independent media, and with much of the country in the throes of a kind of war lust, things do not look good. But if there's any lesson to be learned from Russian history, it's that things can change very quickly.

The Forgotten Internment, Eva Holland, Maisonneuve.

When World War II threatened a remote chain of islands off the Alaskan coast, the indigenous Aleut people were displaced from their homes.

Under American rule, the several hundred remaining Aleut people were classed as "wards" of the state. Residents of the islands St. George and St. Paul -- north of the main Aleutian chain, where the rich seal hunt took place -- were overseen by the Fish and Wildlife Service. The rest of the Aleut communities fell under the purview of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs and its subsidiary, the Alaska Indian Service. When war loomed with Japan in the 1930s, the Aleuts' fate was in the hands of an array of overlapping government departments.

The bureaucracy was tangled even further in 1940 and 1941, when the US military, seeing the Aleutians as both a possible enemy target and a potential launching point for an American attack on Japan, initiated a military buildup in the islands. Dutch Harbor -- the military and marine facility adjacent to the civilian town of Unalaska -- was the hub of the new activity. Soldiers and labourers flooded in from outside, property values rose and liquor flowed. On December 2, 1941, just days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, frustrated federal officials handed civilian administration of the town over to the military authorities.

Back to Baghdad: Life in the City Of Doom, Roy Scranton, Rolling Stone.

A former U.S. soldier returns to Iraq's capital, ten years after he left.

Ahmed drove me around some of the neighborhoods I'd once driven myself, behind the wheel of a Humvee. The streets were viscerally familiar yet wholly strange. American military hardware obtruded everywhere, not just Humvees but also MRAPs and even Abrams tanks. Many Iraqi soldiers wore American desert fatigues, some with American unit patches, especially the Screaming Eagle worn by the 101st Airborne. If I squinted, it was almost like I'd never left.

But while the Baghdad I remembered had been divided into American and Iraqi zones, this new city was divided by religion and money. In poor neighborhoods like Sadr City and New Baghdad, rawboned children ran through streets slippery with rancid garbage, while in affluent Karrada, paunchy men sat in smoky nightclubs drinking whiskey, watching glammy young women dance in hip-tight dresses and showing off by throwing wads of money into the air. Strongholds controlled by Shiite political parties and foreign embassies rose up over abandoned houses, while entire Sunni neighborhoods were shut in by blast walls.

The Bearable Lightness of Being: How Germans Are Learning to Like Themselves, Der Spiegel.

A tour through Germany -- and German identity -- around the country's recent World Cup win.

Domestically, Germans are pampered by Merkel's governing coalition and see no reason to bicker with one another. Abroad, however, there is no overarching vision and even less consensus. The country used to play the role of model student and was America's best friend in Europe. That is no longer the case, but what is next?

When German President Joachim Gauck earlier this year called for the country to play a greater role abroad, he was blasted by the Left Party for being a "loathsome warmonger." Indeed, most Germans would prefer policies that both protect their prosperity from risk and their soldiers from danger. It is an effective strategy for preserving lightness, but it is also egoistic.

Blitheful contentment, cool nationalism, egoistic risk avoidance: What does the sum total look like?

‘It's Like Jail Here,' Priyanka Motaparthy, Foreign Policy.  

Watching the World Cup finals in the labor camps of Qatar.

Working in Qatar is dangerous business. The high temperature on the day of the World Cup final was a staggering 116 degrees Fahrenheit -- and workers often toil for 12 or more hours a day, spending long periods in the glaring desert sun. Many survive on meager meals, while others say employers don't provide them with proper drinking water. Labor camps can be overcrowded, some have broken air conditioning or irregular water and electricity supply, and some employers don't even provide bedding or cooking equipment. According to official government data, the main cause of migrant worker deaths was "sudden cardiac arrest" -- unusual among young and physically active men. Worker advocates have speculated that the combination of grueling working conditions and little rest have resulted in what Nepali migrants call the "sleeping death."

ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images; Wikimedia; -/AFP/Getty Images; Markus Gilliar - Pool /Getty Images; EPA/STR