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Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, writing for the BBC, argues that Western media distorted the 2014 Boko Haram kidnapping of more than two hundred girls sitting for high school examinations. Based on conversations with some of the freed schoolgirls, she argues that the episode was not so much an attack on female education, as portrayed in Western media, but rather banditry gone wrong. A consequence of Western media attention was that it inflated Boko Haram's prestige and set the stage for its later use of female suicide bombers.
Nwaubani's perspective on the nature of Boko Haram differs from that of many observers. She downplays the religious or ideological dimension of the movement, its ability to recruit, and its strength. However, her criticism of Western media's treatment of the Chibok episode is well placed.
The Chibok kidnapping took place in 2014, a period in which opinion leaders in the United States were focused on assaults on female education in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and in those parts of Syria and Iraq dominated by the self-proclaimed Islamic State. The activist movement’s face was Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani girl who became a Western folk hero after she was shot by the Taliban for seeking an education. (She survived and received a Nobel Peace Prize.) Against this background, U.S. media and opinion leaders, including First Lady Michelle Obama, placed the Chibok kidnapping in the context of yet another Islamist attack on female education. There was a general lack of granular knowledge of northern Nigeria that could have resulted in more sophisticated analysis. Rather than reflecting particular Nigerian-Sahelian history and circumstance, they saw Boko Haram as somehow part of a peril posed by al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Boko Haram has indeed long been opposed to Western education—the group’s name translates to “Western education is forbidden”—such as that which the Chibok girls were receiving. The movement’s views of the position of women in society is anathema to almost all Americans. But the beliefs and ideology of Boko Haram are complex and diffuse. The movement should be seen in a Nigerian and Sahelian context rather than that of international terrorism, such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic state—especially in 2014, when the Islamic State ruled large parts of Syria and Iraq.
By 2014, Boko Haram posed a serious threat to the Nigerian government in the north. It occupied territory larger than Belgium or Maryland, and there was realistic concern that it would establish an Islamist state. At that point, it is unlikely that Western media attention, with all of its shortcomings, played any significant role in inflating the movement's importance or prestige in Nigeria.