By Erin Rodewald // June 1, 2015
(This article originally appeared at the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative)
Indeed, even as Nigerians hold onto the hope of a new administration and the democratic transfer of power, the nation’s collective soul remains infused with the trauma of the past several years. Chief among the challenges ahead for Buhari is a solution to the existential threat posed by Boko Haram. While this brutal insurgency has been pushed back in recent weeks, its ambitions remain: overthrow the secular Nigerian government, impose strict Shari’ah law, and expand its self-declared Islamic caliphate.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Boko Haram has killed more than 12,000 people in Nigeria since May 2011. The group has bombed churches and mosques in its push across the country’s northeast, occupying more than 20 towns in the states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe, and displacing some 1.5 million people. Boko Haram terrorists leave death and destruction in their wake, mainly targeting Christians and Muslims who do not embrace their radical version of Islam. Men and boys who will not convert are executed. Young women and girls are abducted—forcibly married, sold as slaves or otherwise brutalized, starved and discarded. In April 2014, Boko Haram abducted some 276 Christian school girls from a secondary school in Chibok, prompting international outrage and the creation of a social media campaign #SaveOurGirls. More than one year later, these girls remain lost.
Others abducted by Boko Haram have been liberated in recent weeks by Nigeria’s military forces. Their stories are harrowing. They have witnessed husbands and sons beheaded at the hands of militants, endured torture and starvation, and suffered repeated and systematic rape and sexual abuse at the hands of their captors. The New York Times reports what officials and relief workers describe as “a deliberate strategy to dominate rural residents and possibly create a new generation of Islamist militants in Nigeria …Women and girls have been given to Boko Haram fighters for ‘marriage,’ a euphemism for the sexual violence that occurs even when unions are cloaked in religion.”
While Nigerian military forces, with the aid of regional troops from Niger, Chad and Cameroon, have succeeded in shrinking Boko Haram’s territorial claims to a few strongholds in the Sambisa Forest, there is concern that the group might be regrouping and returning to its urban guerilla warfare tactics. Boko Haram pledged allegiance to ISIS in February and appears emboldened by the alliance. Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, remains at large and has promised to “soak the ground of Nigeria with infidels blood and so called Muslims contradicting Islam.” Indeed, as military forces squeeze the insurgents, a new tactic appears to be the use of Boko Haram’s youngest victims as suicide bombers: earlier this month, a young girl blew herself up in a busy marketplace in Yobe’s capital city, killing seven people and injuring dozens more.
In the context of this carnage and human depravity, Nigeria’s way out of the abyss is daunting, but imperative. Muhammadu Buhari has signaled his intention to stand on the side of fundamental democratic values as he takes the reins of leadership. Surely, the foremost value necessary for healing the people of Nigeria—and for ending Boko Haram’s agenda of death and oppression—is the freedom of conscience, and by extension, the assurance that human life is valuable. Nigerians desire the freedom of their beliefs without the threat of losing their lives and their property. Religious freedom is a bellwether for the health and stability of any democracy, and it is the way forward for Buhari’s Nigeria.