For several weeks now the mass abduction of some 200 Nigerian schoolgirls has featured in the international media. On April 15, BBC World Africa reported “around 100 girls are thought to have been abducted in an attack on a Christian school in Chibok, Borno state in northeast Nigeria, according to [Nigerian] officials.”
According to the Nigerian government, the attack resulted in the capture of 276 girls, with an estimated 233 still being held by their kidnappers. The immediate suspected perpetrators were members of the militant Islamist group Boko Haram, who have been responsible for an escalation of violence in the country since 2009. This suspicion was later confirmed through video footage obtained by Agence France-Presse, which featured the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, claiming responsibility for the kidnapping.
In the 17-minute long video Shekau appears in worn military fatigues as he wields an aged Kalashnikov rifle. Also featured in the video is a group of over 100 of the kidnapped schoolgirls. The video alternates between frames of the schoolgirls who have been forcibly converted to Islam, and segments that focus on Shekau espousing typical Islamist rhetoric. A key element of the video is Boko Haram’s demand for the release of their “brothers-in-arms” from Nigeria’s prisons in exchange for the release of the children. So far, the demanded prisoner swap has apparently been ignored.
Designated by the United States as a terrorist organization in November 2013 with possible links to other jihadist groups in the region, Boko Haram has played a significant destabilizing role in Nigeria, particularly in the northeast of the country. Though only designated as a terrorist group last year, it began operations as early as 2002, according to the Combating Terrorism Center.
Described as a militant Islamic group, Boko Haram’s goal is to overthrow the “corrupt” government of Nigeria and establish a “pure Islamic” state governed by Sharia law. Towards this goal, the group has been waging a campaign of fear and terror that has, for the most part, been contained to the northeast of the country in states such as Bauchi, Yobe, and Niger.
In 2011, however, Nigeria has witnessed the group’s activities significantly intensify and play an even larger destabilization role than has been seen in previous years. Since August 2011, Boko Haram has planted bombs almost weekly, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of men, women and children. Churches, and in particular, schools, have been the most frequent targets of the group’s violence. Though being predominantly concerned with the influence of Western education within Nigeria, Boko Haram also claimed responsibility for the bombing of a United Nations compound in the nation’s capital of Abuja that claimed the lives of 21 individuals.
The targeting of international agents and institutions such as the U.N. compound in 2011 and the kidnappings of Chris McManus and Franco Lamonilara the following year are uncharacteristic of the group; but they are not unheard of.
For weeks, the unfortunate abduction of the Nigerian schoolgirls and their collective fate received zero coverage in American cable news, perhaps because it was deemed not newsworthy or of particular concern to the American public. However, the producers or newscasters who were responsible for this characteristic oversight of current events could deny the story’s veracity and interest to the domestic public for only so long. Three weeks after the abduction it featured on CNN and Fox News. But why so late? The answer is a social phenomenon popularly termed “hashtag activism.”
Taking place mostly on the popular internet social networking and microblogging platform Twitter, the hashtag #bringbackourgirls has received over a millions hits by celebrities and public officials. Even FLOTUS joined in on the action.
But what exactly is a Twitter hashtag and how could it possibly be related to the activities of a militant rebel group in the forests of a country roughly twice the size of the state of California?
The latter issue is a divisive one; the answer really depends on whom you ask. Some proponents of internet activism will say it plays a major role in demonstrating the interests of the citizenry to their elected representatives, while others will say it is merely a self-serving gesture that accomplishes nothing but the over-simplification of a highly complex issue; an action of little consequence.
The answer to the former, however, is a bit more straightforward. According to Twitter, the hashtag is a form of metadata: “People use the hashtag symbol (#) before a relevant keyword or phrase in their Tweet (posts) to categorize those Tweets . . . hashtagged words become very popular [and] are often trending topics.”
For several years now, hashtags, like many other forms of organized human behavior, have been known to possess the potential for a political element. Such was the case in the 2009 Iranian election protests. During these events throughout Tehran and wider Iran, Twitter and its hashtags were widely used by protesters to organize their efforts and communicate, resulting in the creation of the Iranian Green Movement, colloquially named the ‘Twitter Revolution.’
More similar to the issue of the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls—whose captors have threatened to sell into slavery if Boko Haram’s demands are not met—was the 2012 internet campaign formed around Uganda’s Joseph Kony and the rebel group known as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). In 2012, Invisible Children, a charity based in San Diego, released a 30-minute documentary highlighting Joseph Kony and the LRA as perpetrators of countless kidnappings resulting in the brainwashing and enslavement of thousands of children who have been turned into child soldiers or sold as sex slaves to Sudanese warlords.
The LRA is a militant group that has operated in northern Uganda, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the Central African Republic (CRA). Founded in 1992, the group is responsible for countless atrocities and war crimes spanning three decades.
Funded by the Sudanese government until 2002, Kony and the LRA are notorious for their hallmark traits of rape, murder, torture and unbridled brutality, particularly to the Acholi tribes of Northern Uganda. Human rights groups and NGOs place the number of child soldiers who have been forced to fight for the LRA near 3000.
Invisible Children’s documentary entitled “Kony2012,” and their goal of drawing attention to their cause, was a massive success, shattering online viewership records and leaving many communications experts and NGOs awestruck. Among the staggering statistics; 1.38 million Tweets per day about Kony 2012 for the three days after the story first hit Twitter; 100 million Youtube hits in the six days after it was posted, and 9 million views in one day after Oprah tweeted about the Invisible Children campaign.
Similar to the #bringbackourgirls hashtag used in the Boko Haram online campaign, the #kony2012 was immensely popular among young American adults, according to a poll that suggested over 58% of adults polled reported that they had heard about the film within a few days of release. Two years later, like Joseph Kony, Abubakar Shekau and Boko Haram have become strikingly infamous on the Internet, resulting in the cult of celebrity that has been attributed to the two groups respectively.
But like the opponents of hashtag activism and their criticisms of #bringbackourgirls, Charles Beckett, the Director of Politics and International Studies, London School of Economics’ think-tank and a media communications expert, stated in reference to #kony2012: “It’s like chain-mail. What they haven’t got the capacity for is to take that [interest] beyond another action. What are they going to do with all this energy and interest? It’s going to dissipate.”
What Beckett was alluding to is the inability of these campaigns to transform the massive interest they bring to their causes into a concrete, decisive action. On this front, he is correct. He is probably also correct in asserting that the interest drawn is most likely very short-lived, but in the interim the attention has had significant consequences in both the cases of the Lord’s Resistance Army and Boko Haram.
In the case of the Kony campaign, though these consequences did not result in the LRA leader being brought to justice for his countless crimes against humanity, they did add impetus to the U.S. aiding the Sudanese government in efforts to capture Kony and other top lieutenants of the Lord’s Resistance Army.
In September of 2013, in a not-so-publicized effort by a U.S. Special Operations division, American forces worked alongside south Sudanese and Congolese forces. The coalition troops searching for Kony were assisted by teams of trained tracking dogs that significantly improved the chances of finding their target. These teams were paid for by two unnamed American philanthropists who undoubtedly were aware, at least on a peripheral level, of the international campaign calling for Kony’s arrest. With Kony’s troops virtually decimated, this military operation has virtually no significance to U.S. national interests, much like the case of the abducted 200 Nigerian schoolgirls. Yet, according to a comprehensive report by the Washington Post, “the U.S. military’s journey has its origin in the ‘Kony2012’ internet video that blasted into American public consciousness.”
To further illustrate the power that these popular social campaigns are able to generate, 1,700 students appeared for a day of lobbying in Congress for greater U.S. efforts to disarm the LRA. The following week, a bill calling for disarmament—stopping just short of requiring the deployment of U.S. troops—garnered more than 100 bipartisan votes.
A second case of the sway these movements can exercise involves Senator Tom Coburn (R. – Oklahoma) who had been steadfast in his opposition to the legislation allowing for funding for operations such as this particular one. Coburn relinquished his position after students protested through the frigid Oklahoma night for almost two weeks. Days later, President Obama signed the bill into law allowing for operations such as last September’s raid. Even with the vigor of the public, our elected officials and ambitious legislation, Joseph Kony has yet to be brought to the International Criminal Court where he has been indicted for crimes against humanity.
The U.S. government has responded to the public’s call for action against the abducted Nigerian schoolgirls in much the same way they initially did to the call for action against Joseph Kony: by providing non-military aid. Essentially, since criticism that the Obama administration has not done enough to bring the girls home, the U.S. along with other international bodies have provided everything short of troop deployment to accomplish this task. However, much as with the case of Joseph Kony, the girls are still missing.
Obama officials questioned on Thursday, May 15, whether the Nigerian military would be able to rescue the schoolgirls even with international assistance. Also, with the widespread support the campaign against Boko Haram has amassed in the public and in Congress, the Pentagon is growing increasingly uneasy about the very real possibility that they will be ordered to send in commandos to undertake a mission they regard as unacceptably risky.
The likelihood of a scenario such as this grows even more likely as officials such as Senator John McCain makes declarations like: “I certainly would send in U.S. troops to rescue them, in a New York minute I would, without permission of the host country. I wouldn’t be waiting for permission from some guy named ‘Goodluck Jonathan’”—a reference to Nigeria’s president.
Twitter, hashtags, and Internet popularity aside, Boko Haram and the LRA have far more in common than hashtag activists would have you believe. According to a report published in May of 2014 by C4ADS, rebel militarism and terrorism on the continent of Africa are financed largely by the illicit, yet lucrative trade in elephant ivory and rhino horn.
In a statement put out on March 13th, 2014 by the Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Yury Fedotov, the illegal trade in endangered species and wildlife crime is estimated to reap approximately 8 to 10 billion dollars in illicit profits annually. This figure places the value of wildlife crime on par with the trafficking of humans, narcotics, and weapons, respectively.
Until the importance of the nexus between terrorism and wildlife crime receives the attention and resources it requires to combat external growth, militia groups in Africa, such as Boko Haram, the Lord’s Resistance Army and a slew of others, will continue to finance their operations throughout the region.
Of key importance to the economic relationship between wildlife crime, political and social destabilization, and terrorism is the trade in elephant ivory. As the price of elephant ivory continues to skyrocket on the black market—valued conservatively at over $3000 per kilogram—the issue of illegal poaching and other wildlife crime can no longer be considered a purely conservationist issue, it must be viewed from a regional security standpoint. The linkage of rebel militancy, elephant ivory and transnational crime syndicates becomes even more startling when the potential profit margin is examined.
A single African elephant yields 15 kilograms of ivory, placing the value of a poached elephant at approximately $45,000. A conservative estimate is that 23,000 elephants were killed in 2013, though the figure is likely much higher given the sheer size of Africa and the remoteness of elephant poaching. By these modest estimations, the ivory trade alone brings in over a billion dollars annually. As the African elephant faces increased threats of poaching and dwindling populations across the continent, the retail value of ivory is expected to rise in the Southeast Asian and Chinese markets where the goods are predominantly sold.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme, there is a historic link between elephant ivory and conflict throughout the African continent, with over 40% of intra- and interstate warfare over the past 60 years having been both directly and indirectly financed through illicit proceeds accrued from natural resources.
Exemplified through the widespread practice of elephant poaching during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, ivory poaching is not a new phenomenon. However, given the codification of laws banning the practice of poaching and the sale of ivory in much of the wider international community during the early 1990s, the price of ivory has risen exponentially. For example, in 1976, a single kilogram of elephant ivory was worth US$5.77. Today, a conservative estimate of its retail value is over US$3000.
Contemporarily, Southeast Asia and China provide the largest demand for ivory and other products from endangered species, such as rhino horn and tiger penis, which are key ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). As stated before, the retail value is only expected to increase as elephant poaching reaps a larger impact on indigenous populations of African elephants. Despite efforts by many conservationist groups who have even conscripted Chinese celebrities in their attempts to assuage the Asian demand for endangered species, changing culture is a timely process. In the meantime, middlemen and dealers acquire more and more profit from the trade.
A macro level analysis of the illegal ivory trade indicates it is essentially a large-scale resource transfer from Africa to Asia, similar to the trade in coltan and other potential conflict minerals. Known as a ‘bush currency,’ ivory is increasingly being used as a form of currency among illicit organizations that have been excluded from the global financial system, militant groups such as the LRA, Boko Haram and other terrorist organizations within Africa. Other popular forms of bush currencies are gold and conflict diamonds, however, the key distinction between ivory and these other non-traditional means of exchange is that ivory does not require static control of a territory over a prolonged period of time making the acquisition of it far more convenient.
One of the most disturbing developments in the ivory trade in recent years has been the rapid militarization of poachers. The first phase of the trade, the physical poaching and movement of the illicit contraband, is controlled predominantly by African players through the transportation chain until it is loaded onto shipping containers and transported to Southeast Asia. The second phase, when the contraband has been placed inside o f the container is then overseen by Asian organized crime.
Due to the globalized nature of the environment and increased infrastructure, the trade in African ivory is no longer dominated by corrupt militaries as it previously was. These facets of the new global economy have allowed for the emergence of an underground, transnational economic system based on the trade of illicit contraband such as narcotics, arms, humans, and natural resources such as ivory. These developments in the trade have led to increased professionalization in every phase from poaching to shipping to sale. This professionalization in the trade has been exacerbated and monopolized by the influence of transnational crime syndicates and the corrupt local enablers such as border and customs officials who turn a blind eye as shipments leave their ports.
The process of this professionalization is described by C4ADS in which “poachers—often poor subsistence farmers—are recruited by organized crime figures from African bush-towns that act as trafficking middlemen. The [middlemen] outfit the poachers with weapons and the supplies needed to poach”. During this phase of the trade, as with most resource-plunder networks, profits are the lowest while human impact is the greatest. The former farmers turned poachers are paid approximately $30 per kilogram of ivory they collect, a mere fraction of the price which is profited in Asian markets or most industrialized African markets.
“Conversely, marginalized populations living along the peripheries of the elephant ranges bear the full brunt of the trade’s negative externalities: militarization and banditry, petty corruption and the deconstruction of tourist-drawing nature preserves that are among the largest economic assets to many rural people in some areas of Africa.” The illicit trade lines the pocket of a select few while it corrupts and destabilizes the lives of many more.
The reality is that ivory is used to fund conflicts throughout the region, and most likely in places far beyond the borders of Africa. Statistics such as these should be more than enough fodder for conservationists, public officials and law enforcement to make a far more compelling argument for increased legislation, harsher punitive consequences beyond a fixed monetary fine, and additional funding that is integral if the fight against wildlife crime is to be one of substance.
Unfortunately, even if all these measures are taken in the fight against the trade in ivory, it will not on its own alleviate many of the systemic problems that underpin conflict in Africa. Ivory is but one string in the complex, multilayered lattice that forms a lucrative network of wildlife crime in the region. Wildlife crime itself is simply one of the many criminal economies that thrive in places where many crimes are overshadowed or overlooked because of their supposed superficiality. The Nigerian schoolgirls, Boko Haram, Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army are identical abscesses that are indicative of deeper, systemic issues taking place on a landscape that is intricately linked to every household on this planet.
Critical debate, analysis, and inquiry can go a long way to beginning to understanding the Gordian issues that face the largest landscape on Earth.