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Oil, power and politics behind kidnapping of Nigerian girls

The SAS, FBI, spy planes, hostage negotiators … at last the international community appears to be pulling out all the stops in the search for Nigeria's kidnapped schoolgirls.

As a journalist, though, I must be careful of sounding overly cynical, given it took the media itself long enough to wake up to this story. When finally we did, it was unfortunate also that some reporting left much to be desired in terms of its language and emphasis.

The kidnapped girls were sold off as "brides" by their Boko Haram terrorist captors, some accounts informed us.

When, I wonder, did "brides" become a more accurate description of the girls' plight than "prisoners of war?"

This latest episode in the Boko Haram story is just another example of the sometimes sparse attention given to terrorist groups and the threat they pose, until they themselves force us to sit up and take notice.

It also illustrates how in the developed countries of the West, we often fail to understand the background context out of which the likes of Boko Haram emerge.

A bit more of that in a moment, but for those of us still catching up with the latest events in Nigeria this has been a volatile week there to say the least.

In the wake of those hundreds of teenage schoolgirls being kidnapped in north-eastern Borno state, Monday saw an attack by Islamist insurgent gunmen rampaging through a marketplace in the town of Gamboru Ngala, killing at least 125 people.

"I believe that the kidnap of these girls will be the beginning of the end of terrorism in Nigeria," insisted Nigerian President, Goodluck Jonathan, speaking yesterday at the World Economic Forum being hosted in the capital Abuja.

Thanking delegates for coming despite the danger posed by the militants, President Jonathan quickly moved on to a speech about creating jobs in African economies.

His remarks in this regard bring me nicely back to those issues of background and context I mentioned earlier.

Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is forbidden" in the local Hausa language, have sometimes been referred to as the Nigerian Taliban in reference to the group's call for Islamic Sharia law throughout Nigeria.

But Boko Haram is about a lot more than merely spreading Islamist tenets. It is, above all, a powerful political tool at the disposal of influential Muslim politicians in Nigeria's north.

What Boko Haram provides them with is crucial leverage to pressure the administration of President Jonathan in an effort to gain a larger share of the political patronage funded by Nigeria's oil revenues. What is vitally important to understand here too is that this powerbrokering is not unique to Nigeria's predominately Muslim north.

Southern politicians, among them President Jonathan, are also said to use other militant groups in the Niger Delta for precisely the same purpose. Indeed, if Nigeria's 2015 presidential elections do nothing else for the country they will at least reveal the extent to which militant and insurgent groups are used as political muscle for the powerful.

While the Muslim political elite of the country's north east will embrace Boko Haram for their own ends, their counterparts in the south will utilise militant leaders like Alhaji Mujahid Dokubo-Asari of the Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force (NDPVF), to ensure President Jonathan's re-election bid is not thwarted.

Comprised mainly of the Ijaw ethnic group, the NDPVF was founded in 2004 in an attempt to gain more control over the region's vast petroleum resources, particularly in Nigeria's Delta State.

Africa is all about natural resources these days, not least for Western countries and their Asian rival, China, all of them jockeying for control of the continent's vast reserves of oil, minerals, coltan, timber, cocoa and much else.

Again call me cynical, but no matter how much genuine outrage and offers of help come from the US, Britain and France, over the schoolgirl abductions, it is a safe bet to assume more mercenary geopolitical motives are also lurking somewhere alongside.

To put it another way, Africa for decades has had no shortage of girls - and boys - abducted in armed conflict. In the past I have interviewed many youngsters lucky enough to have escaped the grip of their captors, be it in the Democratic Republic Of Congo, Liberia or Uganda, where Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army have been among the most abhorrent of perpetrators.

"Understanding what has happened to the Nigerian girls and how to rescue them means beginning to face what has happened to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of girls over years in global armed conflict," was how Lauren Wolfe summed it up in a recent article in the influential Foreign Policy magazine.

A director of the Women Under Siege project at the Women's Media Centre in New York, Ms Wolfe, however, goes on to point out "maybe, right now, our eyes have begun to open. Maybe".

That there has been a delayed response by sections of the international community over the abductions in Nigeria is perhaps a measure of where priorities really lie.

Accepting the fact that gaining control of resources and consolidating political positions at home in Nigeria are two of the reasons why the likes of Boko Haram have emerged, it is important to also recognise a third - poverty.

Quite simply, Nigeria's financial gain from its oil industry has not trickled down to the poor, leaving a massive section of the population frustrated, disenfranchised and angry. This, of course, is ripe recruitment potential for the likes of Boko Haram, who, like other al-Qaeda linked groups throughout the world, never miss an opportunity to point the finger of blame elsewhere. The International Crisis Group estimates Boko Haram terrorists have killed more than 4000 people in Nigeria since it began its insurgency four years ago.

Right now it is modifying its strategy, employing guerrilla and terrorist tactics while abandoning its effort to control a small part of Borno state - a goal the group pursued during the first half of 2013. For its cadres, however, the message they preach remains the same: that a way out of poverty lies in establishing an Islamic state.

In response, the West ensures military and logistical support for President Jonathan's regime to ensure its multinational oil companies have continued access to Nigeria's resources. It's a win-win situation for the Nigerian regime and the West alike. For many ordinary Nigerians, meanwhile, it means poverty prevails, Boko Haram grips their lives and children disappear - perhaps for ever.

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