When Boko Haram attacked a school in the town of Chibok, in northeastern Nigeria, kidnapping more than 200 girls, on the night of April 14, 2014, the people of my country were aghast. Across the world, millions of people joined them in asking: How was it possible for this terrorist group to act with such impunity? It took nearly two weeks before the government even commented on the crime.
This lack of reaction was symptomatic of why the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan was swept aside last month — the first time an incumbent president has been successfully voted out of office in the history of our nation. For too long they ruled, not governed, and in doing so had become so focused on their own self-interest and embroiled in corruption that the duty to react to the anguish suffered by their citizens had become alien to them.
My administration, which will take office on May 29, will act differently — indeed it is the very reason we have been elected. This must begin with honesty as to whether the Chibok girls can be rescued. Currently their whereabouts remain unknown. We do not know the state of their health or welfare, or whether they are even still together or alive. As much as I wish to, I cannot promise that we can find them: to do so would be to offer unfounded hope, only to compound the grief if, later, we find we cannot match such expectation. But I say to every parent, family member and friend of the children that my government will do everything in its power to bring them home.
What I can pledge, with absolute certainty, is that from the first day of my administration, Boko Haram will know the strength of our collective will and commitment to rid this nation of terror, and bring back peace and normalcy to all the affected areas. Until now, Nigeria has been wanting in its response to their threat: With our neighbors fighting hard to push the terrorists south and out of their countries, our military was not sufficiently supported or equipped to push north. As a consequence, the outgoing government’s lack of determination was an accidental enabler of the group, allowing them to operate with impunity in Nigerian territory.
That is why the answer to defeating Boko Haram begins and ends with Nigeria. That is not to say that allies cannot help us. My administration would welcome the resumption of a military training agreement with the United States, which was halted during the previous administration. We must, of course, have better coordination with the military campaigns our African allies, like Chad and Niger, are waging in the struggle against Boko Haram. But, in the end, the answer to this threat must come from within Nigeria.
We must start by deploying more troops to the front and away from civilian areas in central and southern Nigeria where for too long they have been used by successive governments to quell dissent. We must work closer with our neighbors in coordinating our military efforts so an offensive by one army does not see their country’s lands rid of Boko Haram only to push it across the border onto their neighbors’ territory.
But as our military pushes Boko Haram back, as it will, we must be ready to focus on what else must be done to counter the terrorists. We must address why it is that young people join Boko Haram.
There are many reasons why vulnerable young people join militant groups, but among them are poverty and ignorance. Indeed Boko Haram — which translates in English, roughly, as “Western Education Is Sinful” — preys on the perverted belief that the opportunities that education brings are sinful. If you are starving and young, and in search of answers as to why your life is so difficult, fundamentalism can be alluring. We know this for a fact because former members of Boko Haram have admitted it: They offer impressionable young people money and the promise of food, while the group’s mentors twist their minds with fanaticism.
So we must be ready to offer the parts of our country affected by this group an alternative. Boosting education will be a direct counterbalance to Boko Haram’s appeal. In particular we must educate more young girls, ensuring they will grow up to be empowered through learning to play their full part as citizens of Nigeria and pull themselves up and out of poverty. Indeed, we owe it to the schoolgirls of Chibok to provide as best an education as possible for their fellow young citizens.
Boko Haram feeds off despair. It feeds off a lack of hope that things can improve. By attacking a site of learning, and kidnapping more than 200 schoolgirls, it sought to strike at the very place where hope for the future is nurtured, and the promise of a better Nigeria. It is our intention to show Boko Haram that it will not succeed.
My government will first act to defeat it militarily and then ensure that we provide the very education it despises to help our people help themselves. Boko Haram will soon learn that, as Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
Muhammadu Buhari is the president-elect of Nigeria.