By Donna Brazile, NEA Columnist
The terrorist told the schoolgirls, "Don't worry -- we're soldiers. Nothing is going to happen to you." The man gathered the girls in the schoolyard. Then he and other "soldiers" began yelling, "God is Great!" That's when the girls knew they were in trouble.
So began The Associated Press' chilling interview with a 16-year-old Nigerian girl who escaped the Boko Haram terrorists over three weeks ago. Her schoolmates weren't so lucky; 276 children remain captured. Now, the girls will be sold as sex-slaves -- or "brides" -- as the terrorist leader euphemistically put it.
Behind the headlines, and the horror and outrage they generate, there's another story. Nigeria, despite being the largest economy in Africa, is in trouble. The terrorist kidnapping of schoolgirls is a symptom of a deeper disease. The symptom needs immediate treatment; the girls must be brought home, safe and unharmed. But then the underlying disease must be diagnosed and treated.
There's massive unemployment in Nigeria, especially among the youth. Economic inequality and gender inequality are creating an atmosphere of despair and desperation. Wambura Kimunyu, a blogger in Kenya, tweeted, "There's an ominous thread that ties Boko Haram in Nigeria with Al Shabaab Terror in East Africa, the uprisings in Egypt (and) the growing problem of youth disenfranchisement and youth unemployment in Africa. Our populations are young, they exist largely at the margins of society, and there are few prospects for them."
Boko Haram, like terrorists and gangs everywhere, recruits the desperate, the depressed, the fearful. Boko Haram, like demagogues and oligarchs everywhere, fears an educated people. Nigerian Senator Iyabo Obasanjo, whose father is a former president of Nigeria, wrote an open letter to Boko Haram in The Vanguard daily newspaper: "The truth is that you have succeeded because the Nigerian state has failed to provide jobs and opportunity for its young people who you can now easily recruit. By disrupting education, you are adding to the burden of the people."
She's right, but I doubt a letter will convince Boko Haram to free the girls. That will take international action -- and the courage of the girls themselves. "We ran and ran, so fast," said the 16-year-old who escaped. "That is how I saved myself. I had no time to be scared, I was just running." She fled with other girls along a dark, lonely, dangerous road, finally aided in getting home by a man on a bicycle.
"I'm the only girl in my family, so I hold a special place and everyone was so happy," the girl told the AP. "But that didn't last long. I am really lucky and I can thank God for that. But God must help all of them. ... Their parents are worrying. Every day, everyone is crying."
One of her classmates who didn't escape wants to be a doctor. If not rescued, she may spend her life as a sex slave. A search by male neighbors for others had to be abandoned when an old man they encountered warned they were close, but all would be killed if they tried to confront the captors.
Local authorities told the Voice of America that the Nigerian government is "outmatched and outgunned." Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan acknowledged in 2012 that the organization had infiltrated his government at many levels. There are serious security challenges beyond this, especially now that Boko Haram wants a ransom to free the girls.
According to experts who held an on-the-record news briefing at the Council on Foreign Relations, Boko Haram has many layers, and no unified command. It has brutal ideological extremists, and also violence-prone young men who are "just" criminals. But for Nigerians struggling with day-to-day living, the terrorist's reasons don't matter. They must cope with Boko Haram stealing their daughters and murdering their sons. Amnesty International says the group has killed over 1,500 Nigerians this year.
Kidnapping schoolgirls sent a message, about both the organization's power and its ideology, since Boko Haram means "western education is religiously forbidden."
Still, we should not make the mistake of thinking that this is a religious war. The boarding school the girls attended is "an elite academy of both Muslim and Christian girls." Egypt's Al-Azhar mosque, one of Sunni Islam's institutions of higher learning, and respected worldwide, issued a statement, saying, "This action does not relate to the noble teachings of Islam in any way. Al-Azhar demands the release of these girls immediately."
Ironically, the World Economic Forum began meeting this week in Nigeria's capital, which President Jonathan has cordoned off for security reasons. The theme of the forum is "Gender Driven Growth." During a State Department news conference about U.S. help in getting the girls back, Secretary John Kerry said, "There needs to be a greater effort. And it will begin immediately. I mean, literally, immediately."
After we treat the symptom -- getting the girls back, immediately -- we need to start treating the disease: gender and economic inequality across Africa, and around the world.