An interview with Nigerian-American journalist Alexis Okeowo
#BringBackOurGirls failed. Maybe the popular hashtag, coined in 2013 after militant group Boko Haram kidnapped 276 girls in Nigeria, was just too narrow, too fine a point in the ongoing regional terror that begat the tragic abductions. If Alexis Okeowo, Nigerian-American journalist and Boko Haram watchdog, had crafted the hashtag, it might have been something more like #SaveNigeria: Over 7,512 Nigerians were killed in 2014 as the result of terrorist activity, an increase of more than 300 percent since 2013, according to the Global Terrorism Index (issued by the Institute for Economics and Peace). Worldwide, Boko Haram is now one of two groups responsible for 51 percent of deaths related to terrorist attacks. The other group on that list? ISIS.
Okeowo’s work on Boko Haram also involves digging into the doings of Nigerian politicians and their often ineffective responses to local terrorism. When money earmarked for fighting terrorism ends up in the coffers of Nigeria’s politicians and army officials, Okeowo investigates. When survivors of Boko Harams’ terror somehow make it home, Okeowo listens to their stories. She documents Nigeria’s outliers—those who stand to lose and gain the most in Nigeria’s war with Boko Haram.
Most of Okeowo’s investigative and analytic pieces end up in publications such as The New York Times Magazine, Granta, and The New Yorker, where Okeowo is a staff writer. One of only a few American journalists covering Boko Haram, she has reported on the missing schoolgirls, corrupt Nigerian officials, antiterrorist vigilantes armed with crude weaponry, and the constellation of social and political groups fighting to be part of Nigeria’s future.
So when President Barack Obama recently committed 300 troops to Cameroon to provide intelligence and assistance necessary to slow the drive of Boko Haram, Okeowo, a native of Montgomery, Alabama, born to Nigerian parents, weighed in. I interviewed Okeowo by email while she was on assignment in Nigeria.
The question used to be, How do we find the girls and return them to Chibok? As the prospects for their return become unrealistic, what questions should we ask now?
We should ask how we can we stop another abduction from occurring. Before the abduction, hundreds of girls and boys had been kidnapped by Boko Haram; hundreds more have been kidnapped since. Why is this still happening, and how do we prevent it?
Where do you believe the Chibok schoolgirls are now?
Boko Haram has kidnapped hundreds, if not thousands, of women and girls, both before and since the Chibok kidnapping. They have ended up as sex slaves and forced suicide bombers. I don’t know where the schoolgirls are, but I do know it will be difficult for all of them to escape the group unless there is a miraculous military rescue, which seems unlikely at this point since the girls are probably dispersed through Boko Haram’s hideouts in the northeast and over Nigeria’s borders.
Are you surprised they have not been found?
No, not really. The local and international attention was important, in that it forced public scrutiny of the government’s actions, and it pushed the government to respond to critics. Former President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration had acted in the past as if it was accountable to no one with regard to Boko Haram and other issues.
You focus on the people who have the most to lose and the most to gain by fighting back against Boko Haram. How does this give you hope and why have you turned your sights to anti-Boko Haram citizens?
In all the places I cover, I’ve always been drawn to stories of flawed but brave people who are grappling with their countries in meaningful, if sometimes radical, ways. At this moment, I’m interested in writing about people who stand up to, or resist, extreme situations that have been imposed on them. In the case of northeastern Nigeria, it’s vigilantes who decided they were fed up with Boko Haram terrorizing their communities, and who decided to fight back. I don’t think they are the only people who can rid Nigeria of Boko Haram, but I think they have a big role to play in a place—the northeast— where the state has fundamentally broken down.
What is the Nigerian government learning from the vigilantes who have, in some ways, succeeded in rooting out Boko Haram members?
I think the government has been embarrassed by how successful residents, untrained in military tactics, have been in rooting out and repelling terrorists. It seems to be concerned with improving the military’s capabilities. Boko Haram is still orchestrating frequent bombings, though, and the vigilantes don’t appear to be disbanding anytime soon.
You write a lot about inefficient governance in northeastern Nigeria. How has this allowed Boko Haram to expand into other regions of the country?
Poor governance has left the remote places in which Boko Haram thrives lawless, making it easy for the group to hide, intimidate, and extort local people, and create a base from which to carry out operations into more urban centers. Poor governance, in relation to corruption within the Nigerian army, left soldiers without the arms and protective clothing and military intelligence they needed to successfully fight Boko Haram and protect the Nigerian people.
We’ve heard about the schoolgirls. What about the schoolboys?
Well, it seems like people actually don’t realize that not only is the education of girls under threat, but also the education of boys. We can’t forget that Boko Haram has attacked several boys’ schools, killing and abducting whoever they get their hands on. It’s a brave act right now to attend school in northeastern Nigeria, and I am endlessly impressed that children are still enrolled and studying. But, of course, there are many children who aren’t in school, though they wish they were. They’ve been forced to flee their homes with their families and take up residence in refugee camps, or their schools have been closed because it’s too dangerous to keep them open—the northeast has found itself in an educational crisis.
President Obama recently committed U.S. troops and intelligence to Cameroon to fight against Boko Haram. Is this is too little too late?
It’s not too little, too late, because the United States has been providing Nigeria with military assistance for years—it just hasn’t amounted to much, mostly due to Nigeria’s incompetency in waging the war. I don’t know what will come next. I’ve heard some encouraging things about a reenergized and now adequately outfitted army under new President Muhammadu Buhari, but Boko Haram is still launching near-weekly attacks.
How will 300 U.S. troops’ military presence affect Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria?
The 300 U.S. troops will not engage in combat, and will be helping to provide intelligence and surveillance to a planned force of soldiers from Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon, and Benin that will fight Boko Haram. I worry it’s too little at this point; it doesn’t radically differ from the help they’ve given Nigeria in the past.
How have elements within the Nigerian government actually benefited from the war with Boko Haram?
There has long been speculation that Nigeria’s defense ministry and military benefited from a national security budget of almost $6 billion that mostly disappeared into officials’ and generals’ pockets, as opposed to equipping soldiers in the war.
What frustrates you most about Boko Haram and the plight of Nigeria?
What’s frustrating about Nigeria in general is that it has so much potential, in the form of its clever, innovative people, and natural wealth. It’s hard not to imagine all the time how prosperous and stable the country could be if corruption wasn’t in the way!
In writing about politicians and Nigerians fighting against Boko Haram and other extremist groups, what has surprised you about the people you’ve met?
I’ve been surprised by the people I’ve met along the way: survivors and fighters who are admiringly resilient, compassionate, and courageous, people who are slowly forging a path out of the madness that has been this war with Boko Haram.
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