What is the Nigerian state doing to stop the menace of Boko Haram, and how are the women and girls in the region affected?

Those were the questions I and Amy Oyekunle, the executive director of Kudirat Initiative for Democracy (KIND), sought to answer during a three-day fact-finding mission to Chibok and Borno in north-eastern Nigeria. Despite the security challenges, we felt we had to go there ourselves.

We met people affected by the terrorist group, as well as members of government who are working to bring the 11-year-old crisis to an end. We heard their stories and were able to develop a plan of action to support civil-society organizations working with women and girls on the ground.

Not surprisingly, given the continuous attacks on people in the region, the state seems to be overwhelmed. Leaders urgently need to build on the momentum created by the #Bringbackourgirls campaign, and allow those living in the region to strengthen their community, schools and economy.

Here are the five key lessons I learned from the trip:

“The people are the sea that the revolutionary swims in” – Chairman Mao

First of all, I found that Boko Haram actively cultivates the enmity of people in the region. This surprised me, because insurgent groups traditionally cultivate the support of local communities.

In contrast, Boko Haram, under the leadership of Abubakar Muhammad Shekau, is actively waging war on the local people. In the week before my visit, the village of Gamboru Ngala was attacked and hundreds of villagers killed, their homes burned. Kalabalge village was attacked twice, but here the villagers had been warned that the insurgents were coming, and were able to defeat them.

The attacks are relentless; even when villagers are not killed, the insurgents have been known to abduct their children, turning them into wives, sex slaves, servants and fighters.

“You cannot tie a man’s hand and foot then send him into battle” – Moshood Abiola

Corruption is killing our soldiers. While funds have been earmarked for the war on terror, it is not getting to the soldiers on the ground. On the day we arrived in Maiduguri, the soldiers in nearby barracks mutinied, a rebellion that alerted the country, and the world, to the fact that all was not well with the troops.

They complain that they are not receiving their full allowances; they are not properly equipped or fed; that the state fails to support the families of fallen soldiers as it promised.

One of them told me that if he were to see one of the Chibok girls with Boko Haram, he would simply wave at her and not attempt a rescue. He may be leading a contingent of 200 soldiers, he explained, but they had only 20 bullets each. Their ammunition would run out in five minutes, whereas the insurgents had enough to keep shooting for an hour. Completely outgunned, any rescue attempt would be tantamount to suicide.

There needs to be greater transparency in the allocation of funds by our government, and Nigerians need to know why money is not reaching the intended recipients. Have the funds not been released, or does the problem lie in the way they have been spent?

Hundreds of soldiers have been killed by insurgents since 2009. Army morale is low and new recruits are signing up on the condition that they are not sent to the north-east. The problem of proper equipment and better support has to be tackled, and greater transparency will be key.

If there is any silver lining to this terrible situation, it is the urgency that we all now feel to act. If we manage to prevent the deaths of villagers and soldiers, perhaps we can then move on to preventing the slow death of our health and education services.

“There is nothing more dreadful than the habit of doubt. Doubt separates people, a poison that disintegrates friendships and breaks up pleasant relations. It is a thorn that irritates and hurts; it is a sword that kills” – Buddha

Trust between federal and state governments is low. At first, there was some scepticism as to whether the abduction had even taken place. Confusion and doubt caused weeks of inaction at the federal level.

The lack of trust was not one-sided. While I was in Borno, local people spoke about the helicopters being used to supply Boko Haram with food and ammunition, suggesting that members of the army were collaborating with the insurgents. It was even alleged that soldiers had been among the insurgents captured in Kalabalge. In this atmosphere of mutual distrust, cooperation was almost impossible.

The Borno state government attempted to restore confidence by ensuring that the military would have significant input into the civilian Joint Task Force (JTF) programme, which recruits, trains and deploys civilians in counter-insurgency. The programme currently has 1,800 recruits, which includes a small number of women, and is expected to expand.

It was the civilian JTF who routed the insurgents in Kalabalge, and handed them over to the army, along with their prisoners, weapons, vehicles and motorcycles. Much of the credit for securing Maiduguri also goes to the JTF, who uncovered Boko Haram members within their own communities and handed them over.

The reason why the efforts of civilians and local government in Borno are so important is because Borno is massive. It’s 70,000 square kilometres, about the size of the Netherlands and Belgium combined. But its population is small, at a mere 4.6 million. Outside Borno’s major towns, the population is spread across low-density villages, such as Chibok. It’s difficult to get enough boots on the ground to cover an area of this size, especially when the army is low on new recruits willing to be sent to the region. The JTF fills the gap in manpower, and leaves the security agencies to police the borders. Federal agencies, state government and the people of Borno all have a role to play – and must work together.

“All the bottom 10 countries have a recent history of armed conflict and are considered to be fragile states, which means they are failing in fundamental ways” – 2014 State of the World’s Mothers Report

While men and boys are affected by the crisis, women and girls suffer differently. They have less ability to rebuild their lives because they face more cultural and socio-economic limitations as a result of their gender.

All are vulnerable to being killed, but women and children are more likely to be used as sex slaves. Less educated than men and boys (with approximately 4% of women having rights to the land they farm) women and girls are often locked in a prison of ignorance and dependency. The crisis exacerbates their situation because many husbands and fathers have fled the area for fear for their lives, leaving women and children without their primary breadwinner. Furthermore, the culture of shame that surrounds sexual violence makes it difficult for women and girls to speak out if they are assaulted or to seek medical care and counselling.

Aside from sexual assault, conflict also makes it even harder to provide basic healthcare in the affected areas. While state and federal hospitals in the region are still operating, many private practices have been affected, with doctors and nurses relocating to safer states. This will have an adverse effect on the maternal and child mortality rates, which had previously been improving. The current Presidential Initiative on the North-East (PINE) will need to make provisions for the differentiated needs of women and girls, such as safe schools, trauma and counselling centres, and legal support in areas such as land ownership and inheritance.

“The national protest, #Bringbackourgirls, should be complemented with #buildusastate” –Professor Richard Joseph

In Nigeria, security agencies and policy coordination are controlled at the federal level. It is on this basis that the current resource-sharing formula was determined. It is the federal government that receives funds to train and equip soldiers and the police, and to coordinate national policy on education. If the results are not as expected, if the security agencies are unable to secure villages and save lives, or even deliver basic social services – this must have implications for Nigeria’s political structure.

Yet, the performance of the federal government’s troops has been poor. When soldiers were first sent into Borno, Yobe and Adamawa, they seemed to have trouble distinguishing Boko Haram militants from civilians. The atrocities that were committed in the name of securing Borno led to the emergence of the civilian JTF, as a way of limiting the military’s engagement with the local population. The people reasoned that since the members of Boko Haram were known to them, they would root them out and hand them over to the army, so that no more soldiers would have to enter their communities. The stories of rapes and extra-judicial killings, and of boys and men taken into custody and neglected, are heart-wrenching.

Nigeria is at a crossroads. As terrorists hold the entire country of 170 million people to ransom by kidnapping children and scaring others away from an education, it is time for the Nigerian federal government to act. It has a responsibility to protect people and property, and it needs to demonstrate its ability to do so by bringing back the abducted girls. Alive, and soon.

Author: Hafsat Abiola-Costello is Special Adviser and Member of the State Cabinet Government of the State of Ogun, Nigeria, and a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader.

Image: The commander of a group of traditional hunters who have volunteered to hunt for Boko Haram poses for a picture at the hunters’ camp in Maiduguri, Nigeria, May 21, 2014. REUTERS/Joe Penney