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‘The Failed State Chick’ on Boko Haram

Posted on May 24, 2014

    Nigeria's top military leaders attend a news conference about the abducted schoolgirls in Abuja, Nigeria, on May 12. AP/Sunday Alamba

By Susan Zakin

The New York Times carried a poignant blog post last week about Camille Lepage, a 26-year-old photojournalist killed earlier this month in the Central African Republic. The chief Africa photographer for The Associated Press, Jerome Delay, paid Lepage the ultimate insider’s compliment, calling her “this very discreet yet inquisitive and incredible journalist” in the tradition of Corinne Dufka.

Dufka is the most famous journalist you never heard of. She denies that women do journalism differently, but her persona suggests otherwise. Dufka is a quiet iconoclast who belies the tradition of the pompous foreign correspondent who boasts about the bullets he’s dodged and the dictators he’s known, a club that until recently has been mostly, but not exclusively, male.

Dufka, for example, would never mention her 2003 MacArthur “Genius” Grant, although she’s competitive enough to be annoyed that she missed out on a Pulitzer because her photographs were deemed too negative.

Nearly 20 years ago, Dufka left journalism to join Human Rights Watch, becoming its senior researcher in West Africa. Last week, she found herself in the midst of a breaking news story again, as an international furor arose over the kidnapping of nearly 300 girls by the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram. After the story went viral—complete with a frowning Michelle Obama holding up a sign with the hashtag #bringbackourgirls—a counter-furor arose. Jumoke Balogun, an American born in Nigeria and a correspondent for The Guardian, charged that the campaign would provide a pretext for further U.S. military involvement in Africa.

Instead of going all Kony2012 on Michelle Obama, I called Dufka. She began her career as a social worker in El Salvador, worked as a photojournalist in Bosnia, and joined the Reuters bureau in Nairobi, Kenya, in the early 1990s. For the next decade, the “dirty wars” in West Africa were her beat. After joining Human Rights Watch, she took a year’s leave of absence to work for the Special Court for Sierra Leone investigating war crimes and human rights abuses.


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Susan Zakin: Let’s start with the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria. What is the press getting wrong?

Corinne Dufka: They’re not getting anything wrong, it’s just an incomplete picture. The abduction of the girls is, of course, an extremely grave crime. But to focus exclusively on the girls lacks an appreciation of the wide and systematic crimes committed by Boko Haram in recent years, and also by the Nigerian army since the state of emergency was declared almost a year ago. There have been scores of attacks on towns and villages, and well over 1,000 people killed, hacked to death, dragged out of their cars and murdered. Scores of boys and young men have been killed in school attacks.

SZ: Have schools been a particular target?

CD: The name “Boko Haram” means Western education is sin. They have opposed Western education from the very beginning, and schools are among their main targets. They’ve attacked and burned schools of all different levels, from primary and secondary schools to technical and academic colleges. As recently as March, 43 students were hacked to death in a government college. The abduction of the girls is just one of many attacks against educational institutions.

SZ: What has the government of Nigeria done to stop them?

CD: In response to death threats by Boko Haram, the Nigerian army has set up widespread and arbitrary detention, in horrible conditions that have led to the deaths of many men without court proceedings to determine their guilt or innocence. There could be a campaign “Bring Back our Boys” led by the mothers of boys and men who are arbitrarily detained. Many have died. We met with numbers of these women. It was heartbreaking. Both sides have committed violations. It’s important to keep that in mind.

SZ: Is there something unique about Boko Haram?

CD: Boko Haram seems to be a disturbing fusion between the Sierra Leone rebel movement in the 1990s and al-Qaida. The tactics used in Sierra Leone were designed to terrify. The RUF—the Revolutionary United Front—compensated for their low numbers by terrifying the population and swelling their ranks as people joined them out of fear. Boko Haram is also using sheer terror to intimidate and ultimately control the population. They profess to be grounded in Islam but an Islam that, as many scholars have pointed out, is against the principles of Islam.

SZ: You’ve worked in a number of countries known as failed states. What have you learned about the causes of state failure?

CD: Rapid population growth is one factor. Some West African countries have the highest population growth in the world. No country can keep up with that. Climate change, desertification, economic factors and, lastly, endemic corruption. But Nigeria is not a failed state. It has very strong institutions, a strong central government, a strong media, a strong electoral process. The problem with Nigeria is not that it’s a failed state but a deeply corrupt state. Boko Haram started out years ago preaching against corruption. Followers gravitated toward a group that seems to offer them more than the state does.

SZ: Boko Haram has been expanding its violent activities for several years. We weren’t paying much attention to Nigeria before the girls were kidnapped, were we?

CD: Not enough. We shouldn’t only zoom in on places where the conflict is already surfacing. The fact that Mali, which essentially collapsed two years ago, was considered a success story by the West is an indictment of development policy. It’s a culture of low expectations. As long as there are elections that are not characterized by extreme violence, as long as there is not overt armed conflict, then a country stays out of the problem category.

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