The Danger of A Single Story: Boko Haram and #BringBackOurGirls

As always, Chimamanda Adichie gets to the heart of the matter as she addresses Boko Haram and the Chibok girls in a recent interview with BBC World News.

The social media activism of #BringBackOurGirls has been a fascinating local phenomenon to watch unfold on the global stage. The protests were a pivotal moment for Nigerian democracy, but as the feverish call for action has crossed borders, critics have accused the movement of devolving into hashtag activism and mere sentimentality. Moreover, the wave of “analysis” by Western media following the kidnapping was shoddy at best. We require nuanced writing in order to understand Boko Haram, a complex group whose motives and methods continue to evolve.

Because gender remains a hot-button issue across the globe, a “single story” narrative of #BringBackOurGirls casts Boko Haram as an antiquated, chauvinistic group hell-bent on restricting women’s rights. However, as Adichie points out in her BBC interview, this framing of the story is far too simplistic. Comparisons between Boko Haram and the Taliban, disturbingly popular these days, are contrived, at best. While Boko Haram may object to the education of girls, it remains primarily focused on the general idea that Western education is bad. It is not focused stopping Western education for girls; it is focused on stopped Western education for everyone in Nigeria - including boys. In February, 59 boys were killed when Boko Haram attacked Northern boarding schools. Over 171 teachers have been killed during Boko Haram’s reign of terror.

This is not a war on gender. This is a war on learning. 

While it is laudable to witness the passion of celebrities like Anne Hathaway, we must get our facts straight. When Hathaway proclaimed at a rally that only 5% of Nigerian girls get an education, that statistic was parroted by bloggers and news outlets alike. It is wrong. According to World Bank data, the primary completion rate (the percentage of students completing the last year of primary school) in Nigeria was nearly 72% in 2010.  We are right to be angry, but our anger should stem from facts and the real situation at hand. 

When Western media frames Boko Haram’s actions as a part of a global war on women, it obscures the focus from the group’s fundamental aim; it ignores the why behind all its current attacks. Boko Haram's desire to disrupt and uproot the Nigerian state stems from frustration over widespread inequality in Nigeria as well as a corrupt and inept government. Teju Cole’s dark humor captures this frustration (perhaps foreshadowing Nigerians’ current exasperation with President Jonathan?):

Consider the enormous wealth of the Lagosian elite as captured in this recent New York Times article:

A small elite live in walled enclaves where palms and bougainvillea shield Porsche collections, new palaces and swimming pools. According to a recent study by New World Wealth, the number of Nigerian millionaires is expected to reach 23,000 by 2017…. Lagos’s billionaires and multimillionaires spend up to $50 million on long-range jets, and Nigeria has one of the fastest-growing markets for private aircraft in the world.

Juxtapose that narrative of largesse against these stark statistics on Northern Nigeria’s poverty from Human Rights Watch:

The National Bureau of Statistics’ report… shows that 70 percent of Nigerians in northeast Nigeria—Boko Haram’s traditional stronghold—live on less than a dollar a day. 

Chronic Malnutrition among children is also more prevalent in northern Nigeria than in the south. More than 50 percent of northern children under the age of five are moderately to severely stunted compared to less than 30 percent of their southern counterparts. Infrastructure development also lags behind in the north. In northeast Nigeria, for example, only 24 percent of households have access to electricity, compared with 71 percent of households in the southwest.

Given Nigeria’s staggering income inequality and low provision of social services, the North (particularly the highly impoverished Borno and Yobe states, hotbeds of the Boko Haram insurgency) remains ripe for extremism. Boko Haram easily draws upon a large population of frustrated, uneducated young men as well as almajiris,street children under the guidance of Muslim religious teachers. Thus, Aliko Dangote’s recent World Economic Forum pledge to invest $2.3 billion in Northern Nigeria signals a growing awareness among the country’s business and political elite that inequality must be curbed for the sake of the country’s future. 

The attention around #BringBackOurGirls may be waning, but we owe it to the people of Northern Nigeria, whose lives have been so marred by violence and poverty, to at least ensure that their story is told correctly, albeit it retroactively. 


For excellent news coverage of Boko Haram, take a look at the work of phenomenal reporter Alexis Okeowo.

A good context piece on the insurgency via British GQ.

To learn more about the future trajectory of the group, take a look at this excellent blog post by Jideofor Adibe of the Brookings Institution on “Possible Trajectories of the Boko Haram Conflict in Nigeria.”

Most importantly, don’t rely solely on Western sources. Read Nigerian newspapers. Some good ones to start with: The GuardianThe Sun and Vanguard.

Akinyi OchiengComment