You would surely expect me, as a Western, educated woman, to support the education of girls the world over, and I do. I really do. But the international frenzy that has been whipped up about the girls forcibly taken from their school in northern Nigeria leaves me cynical and cold. It is not that this is not an abhorrent crime; of course it is. But it cannot be seen in isolation from its political and cultural context, and it is absurd to demand that world leaders should do something. I’m sorry, but this really isn’t their problem.
When the Western media first reported three weeks ago that 200 girls had been abducted from their school, I was mildly surprised by the relative equanimity with which the news seemed to be received. It did not feature at the top of most news bulletins. It seemed to me then that 200 was really rather a lot of girls to be essentially taken captive in one go, and that rather more prominence for this undoubted atrocity was probably in order.
Against that, you could imagine editors arguing in terms of news priorities, that this was Nigeria (not, say, Northampton or Norway); the excesses of Boko Haram, the Islamist extremist group presumed to be responsible, were long standing and well known; abductions of girls in this region – though not on this scale – were not unheard of. Perhaps there was also a feeling that no one, not even Boko Haram, would be able, in the end, to pull it off. The girls would soon be home where they belonged, and we could all forget about it.
If Nigeria’s own elected leader, Goodluck Jonathan, did not consider the disappearance of 200 girls worth getting all that upset about – still less sending in the army for – why should anyone else be expected to do the job for him? It may have happened in a remote part of the country, but it is his country and he is supposed to be in charge.
Probably little more would have happened, however, without the social media. After 10 days or so, indignation about the fate of the Nigerian girls was becoming a phenomenon, bringing together feminism and one-worldism, right across the West. By yesterday more than one million people had signed up to the Twitter campaign #Bringbackourgirls.
Such a power is social media judged to be that no politician worth his – or her – salt could fail to support it. Calling for the “immediate” return of the Nigerian girls (three weeks after the event, but no matter) has taken on the persuasive force of a three-line whip. If, as a politician or even a decent human being, you don’t sign up, you risk being exposed as a misogynist, or worse.
So we now have the spectacle of the Prime Minister – speaking “as a parent” – in the Commons and a bevy of MPs competing to express their repugnance at the abductions. We have news organisations reporting every couple or half-dozen new schoolgirl kidnappings in Nigeria. We have the US President denouncing the crime, and the First Lady, Michelle Obama, posing in the White House with a placard displaying the now ubiquitous Twitter handle. Then dear Malala adds her voice, grave, eloquent and admirable as always, in defence of girls’ education, as though there was not quite enough to be said about what goes on in her native Pakistan.
Nor does the bandwagon stop there. Forget the crisis in Ukraine and the killings in Syria: Western leaders are rushing special forces and all their first-world paraphernalia to the forests of northern Nigerian in the hope of tracking the missing girls down. Perhaps they will succeed. But if they do, you can guarantee that the national politicians who initiated the successful operation will bask in the glory of having done “the right thing”, no doubt with a prayer that it will help deliver the “women’s” vote back home.
Latterly, even Goodluck Jonathan has been shamed into making a statement and announcing some modest action on Nigeria’s part. But really it is with him and his government that the response to this outrage should have begun. Two hundred girls is a lot of girls. Given that such abductions have smaller precedents, he and his fellow countrymen must have had a reasonable idea why they were taken and their likely fate: to be sold, as commodities, into marriage or enslavement.
That nothing was done for so long suggests not only that a part of Nigeria is out of central control, but that a prevalent view of women as chattels is something Nigeria is not ready to address. I doubt if Michelle Obama plugging #bringbackourgirls or a million mainly Western retweets will alter this. It demands a change in mindset that has to begin at home.
The Counter Terror Exo shows a sector growing out of fear
This time last week I was face to face with a black dog. It was standing on a counter; a bit big for a Staffordshire bull terrier, a bit small and stocky for a Labrador. I looked into its eyes, but there were none; then I made to pat the faux-fur on its head. “Don’t do that,” came a commanding growl (not from the dog); then, as I snatched my hand guiltily away: “I wouldn’t, if I were you.”
The warning was all the more worrying for the incontrovertible fact that the animal concerned could not bark, let alone bite. It was, though, handsomely equipped with state-of-the-art remote recording technology. A camera mounted on its back informed the handler, via a screen, exactly where the dog was, and what was tweaking its interest. A second camera, strapped to its head, showed the handler the dog’s eye view. Drugs, explosives, dangerous buildings – you name it - the job of these dogs was to venture, lightly and curiously, where no human would wisely go.
I was visiting the Counter Terror Expo (CTX) 2014 at London’s Olympia where, amid a bewildering variety of pick-proof locks, impenetrable walls and stealth surveillance technology, the prominence of dogs and variations on dogs – the communications and cabling specialists, Datawolves, for instance - was somehow consoling. Even if the human factor in warfare may not be what it was – think drones and micro-drones and driverless vehicles – the animal factor, it seems, still has a place.
A couple of hours spent wandering the 250 or so stands provided, at one level, an entertaining romp through an alarmist future, a breathless introduction to “standalone chassis options”, “red-teaming” and “proven protection”, a world where commercial companies positively boast of “watching them, watching you”.
But there is room, too, for less cheerful reflection. Is it not a commentary on the post-9/11 world and the UK’s own recent military entanglements that companies thrive from offering to “retrofit windows against the effects of blast” and British universities rent adjacent stands, promoting – presumably profitable - courses in counter-terrorism? A journal called ‘Risk UK’ had a ‘Psycho’-like scene on its cover, with the words “Don’t panic. Safe and efficient evacuation”. Here is a highly successful sector which owes its exponential growth almost entirely to fear.
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