A Geographer Reads the Newspaper 2.

Attacks by the military forces of other countries, notably of Chad, have driven Boko Haram off the conventional battlefield in northern Nigeria.[1] Two things have resulted from this military success. On the one hand, Boko Haram has turned to ordinary terrorism: suicide bombings in villages, along with attacks on hotels frequented by Westerners in states neighboring Nigeria. Suicide attacks happen almost daily now. The attacks have disrupted the local economy. Food has become scarce. Famine is a real danger. About 2.8 million people have fled the region for safety in the south.[2] However, there is no organized system for dealing with these refugees. Some have gone to live with relatives, some are housed in makeshift camps. Much of the income of these states comes from oil, so the fall in prices has squeezed budgets.[3]

On the other hand, many of the estimated 2,000 captives seized by Boko Haram in the last several years have been liberated. While Westerners transiently mobilized behind the “BringBackOurGirls” hashtag (and then largely forgot about the 200 captives), the actual families of the returnees are not so enthusiastic. The women among them have been labelled “annoba” (epidemics) or “Boko Haram wives.” There is a suspicion that they were radicalized in captivity. They might have been allowed to return as recruiters of new jihadists. Moreover, many had been raped or forced into marriage with Boko Haram soldiers; some are now mothers of children or are pregnant. This adds to the difficulties of reintegration.

Partly, there appears to be a widespread belief that character is transmitted through the blood or genetically.[4] Local people have said that the children—born or not-yet-born—carry “bad blood.” They have been described as “hyenas among dogs.” One mother said that “When I think of the baby that will come, it disturbs me a lot because I always ask myself this question: will the child also behave like [Boko Haram]?”

Partly, one wonders if traditional notions of “honor” and “purity” are involved. Are the women now seen as not fit for marriage and likely to be permanent economic and psychological burdens on their families. The food shortages and displacements would only compound these anxieties. That’s not pretty to say and may have no basis.

The two different strands of this problem entwine in the female suicide bombers who carry out some of the suicide attacks. On 9 February 2016, two girls killed 58 and wounded 78 at a camp in Dikwa, Nigeria.[5] Some of them appear to be captives who were turned into weapons. Theories about these suicide bombers vary. Some believe that the women have been “brainwashed” in some fashion (like Patty Hearst with the Symbionese Liberation Army). Others believe that the women are unwitting (like the “muscle hijackers” on the 9/11 flights) or extorted in some way, and that the bombs are detonated by remote control. A third possibility is that the female captives share the “bad blood” or “honor” assumptions of their fellow villagers and believe that their lives are effectively over. Some recent female suicide bombers wore their hair pulled back away from their faces in a local burial style.

[1] Dionne Searcey, “Women Freed From Boko Haram Face Rejection at Home,” NYT, 17 February 2016.

[2] In comparison, Germany has taken in about a million refugees in the last year in what is generally regarded as an eye-catching human catastrophe.

[3] The propensity of government officials in Nigeria to steal everything that isn’t nailed down or red-hot adds to the problem. Moreover, many of the Nigerian refugees are Muslims in a predominantly Christian country.

[4] John Locke and his “tabula rasa” haven’t penetrated much here apparently.

[5] Usam Sadiq Al-Amin and Dionne Searcey, “Young Bombers Kill 58 At Nigerian Refugee Camp,” NYT, 11 February 2016.