Sadistic monsters must be stoppedComment on this story
Neither you nor I have ever met Tabitha Pogu, Esther Usman, Aisha Ezekial or Solomi Titus, but we know they are desperately frightened little girls today, writes Max Hastings.
Along with 200 fellow pupils, they have been abducted by Nigerian Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram, whose leader threatens to sell them into slavery.
The country’s authorities have released the names of all these children, which somehow makes their tragedy real. Hitherto, it seemed terrible but remote. Some captives appear already to have been sold, for £8 (about R140) apiece.
The crime has made an impact on world public opinion matched by few of Africa’s horrors in recent times. “Just because I took some little girls, everyone is making a noise,” smirked the terrorists’ leader Abubakar Shekau in a bizarre YouTube rant.
In this, at least, he is right.
On Wednesday, it was announced that Britain is sending “a small team of Whitehall experts” - obviously from the intelligence services and special forces - to advise the Nigerians, and the gesture will be applauded.
But, despite Wednesday’s reports that the SAS are on standby, do not sit by the TV waiting to hear that white knights of Hereford have slain the evil dragons of Borno province. Life and death in Africa are not as simple as that.
Nigeria is a vast place, the most populous country in the continent, where 350 ethnic groups speak 250 languages. The north is dry, unimaginably poor and unbelievably remote - I have seen the region, though many years ago.
Before this crisis, scarcely any journalists visited, partly because it is so dangerous, now Boko Haram’s tentacles extend across a quarter of Nigeria.
On Monday, one of group’s gangs massacred 300 people at a market on the Cameroon border, and their total human toll runs into many thousands.
Landlines are few. No civilian aircraft flights land there. Almost all information comes from the security forces, which are institutionally brutal, mendacious and corrupt.
Even in this age of Twitter, Facebook and satellite imaging of every crevice on the planet, we know less about northern Nigeria than about Tolkien’s Mount Doom.
The mass kidnapping was hidden from the wider world until Boko Haram chose to trumpet it. Abubakar Shakau’s movement is a perverted compound of savagery and modern technology, the latter expressed in his taste for video propaganda.
“There is a decision to make,” he proclaimed to the world in 57 minutes of ravings. “Either you are with us… or you are with Obama, Francois Hollande, George Bush, Clinton and anyone who is an unbeliever. Kill! Kill! Kill! This war is against Christians.”
The movement’s name means “Western education is forbidden”. So, too, is the wearing of shirts or trousers, all manifestations of secularism and, of course, Christianity.
Two months ago in the same region, the group attacked another school where, after boarding every exit, its men seized 50 boys and cut their throats with machetes. They then ordered the girls to go home, abandon their wicked schooling and seek husbands.
In what kind of place can such a creed find widespread support? In a place of despair.
Statistics say Nigeria is the richest country in Africa, with an average annual per capita income of £1 700 (over R30 000), great wealth in most of the continent.
But this is the greatest kleptocracy on Earth, whose oil wealth is pillaged by an elite which claws not millions, but billions. The Christian south takes many lions’ shares of national resources so that in the Muslim north, 70 million exist on less than 90p a day.
In their rage and hopelessness, which they blame upon the Western culture embraced by the Nigerian regime, it is unsurprising that many turn to such grotesque cults as Boko Haram, which claims links to Al Qaeda.
You may say: whatever the political problems, surely these innocent children can be located by Western technology, then freed even by bungling local security forces? Intelligence surveillance is indeed probably the most useful assistance outsiders can offer. The US and Britain have terrific phone interception capability, and American satellites traverse the region.
But the Nigerian government is perverse and grudging about accepting such aid. In the vastness of Sambisa Forest Reserve, where the guerrillas are based, it is uncertain that satellite cameras can spot them.
Worse, even if they do so, the local police and army are as unconvincing liberators as the Russian army, which routinely presides over massacres when confronting hostage-takers.
In northern Nigeria in March 2012, a Special Boat Service team tried to help troops free an Italian and a British hostage - 28-year-old Chris McManus of Oldham - held in Sokoto. After becoming spectators of a messy shoot-out, the British were able only to collect the hostages’ bodies.
A former American ambassador to the country pointed out on Wednesday that the US Army is legally prohibited from collaboration with Nigerian security forces, as their record of human rights abuse is so appalling. In the first half of 2013 alone, the army and police were accused of the murder in custody of 1,000 Muslim northerners.
Public executions of prisoners are routine; Boko Haram’s former leader and founder, Mohammed Yusuf, was killed after his capture. Perhaps his fate seems crudely just. But in the eyes of most northern Nigerians, the government’s armed predators are morally indistinguishable from the guerrillas.
We see in Nigeria problems that beset the entire African continent. Democracy cannot function effectively in the absence of an uncorrupt civil service and judiciary, a free media and a tax-paying electorate. Life at every level of society is a sustained smash-and-grab raid. The army and police, unskilled and atrociously paid, are unfit for duty.
Remember what happened in Nairobi’s Westgate Mall last September, where 67 people were massacred by a handful of attackers from the Somali group Al Shabaab, amid awesome incompetence by Kenyan soldiers, some of whom looted shops instead of rescuing hostages. It still remains uncertain whether any or all the attackers were accounted for.
South Africa is supposedly the most advanced society in the continent, but its police force is a shambles, its inadequacy highlighted by the Oscar Pistorius murder trial.
Sometimes it is said statistics show conditions in Africa are improving, but the reality looks pretty dreadful. A US expert on Nigeria said on Wednesday that the country is deteriorating.
It is phenomenally difficult, in a post-colonial climate cynically exploited by African kleptocrats, for Westerners to do much to help.
Criticism or sanctions prompt cries of “racism” from rulers who victimise their own people. Britain can offer military advice and aid to try to raise standards in local security forces, especially in countries like Kenya and Nigeria, with which we have historic links.
But it is beyond our powers to save them from their own rulers. Even if - as is most unlikely - the SAS is invited to help in a rescue operation, they should not do so. The risk is too great that they get dragged into a disaster by the bloody-handed Nigerian army.
The outside world’s most useful contribution is to shine the floodlights of media attention on the corruption and cruelty of the Nigerian government.
It is international publicity, not shame, that has forced President Goodluck Jonathan’s rotten regime belatedly to respond to the kidnapping, by offering a £190 000 (R3.3m) reward.
The fanatics of Boko Haram cannot be defeated by matching them murder for murder, atrocity for atrocity. Only when the bloated bosses in the capital offer some portion of social justice to the north is there a chance of peace, and displacing the Islamist fanatics.
Britain’s days of playing world’s policeman are long gone, as even the Prime Minister at his most boy-scoutish must recognise. It is right for the government to join cries of outrage about the schoolgirls’ plight. But Africa can be saved from itself only by Africans, not by heroes from Hereford.