where warning works (chibok, nigeria)

The kidnappings at Chibok, in northern Nigeria, are difficult to recount; it is a story of hiding, and not of telling. The initial subterfuge of Nigerian military officials, the unknown identities of the Chibok girls’ captors, the perpetual two-step of government diplomacy with Boko Haram, the girls’ captors–as weeks pass, with most of the Chibok girls no closer to home, these obfuscations appear more common than transparency. When–if–the girls return, they will bring many stories to narrate; likely, many fewer will be heard.

It is unexpected, then, that we might view the events at Chibok as a positive case of early warning. Not prevention, of course; the girls’ eventual abduction suggests as much. Still, the essence of effective warning–the continuous, accessible flow of accurate information to Chibok’s vulnerable civilians–was apparent in the hours prior to Boko Haram’s violent swarm. A rare wealth of reporting describes the kidnappings’ preceding events. At approximately 9:30 pm, on April 14, the chairman of the Chibok school’s Parent Teacher Association contacted the town’s designated military commander to warn of an impending attack, according to a Reuters investigation. An earlier report by Amnesty International places an even earlier time-stamp–7:00 pm–on the military’s knowledge of the town’s imminent danger. According to the Amnesty report, the first to learn of Boko Haram’s plans was a group of community militiamen in Gagilam, near Chibok, who communicated the warning via phone to Chibok officials. Local security officials paid the warnings little heed, likely because of widespread fear among appointed military units. Many fled to the nearby mountainside; the Chibok girls were taken.

We can speculate about possible reasons why Chibok’s warnings worked, prior to the abject failure of the Nigerian state’s local security forces. The first appears to be the now-robust growth of community militias in Borno state and its surrounding regions. These groups, sometimes referred to as “vigilantes” or the “civilian JTF” (Joint Task Force, the Nigerian military moniker for an ad-hoc domestic operation) are a form of “hybrid governance.” The militias fill gaps in the services of the Nigerian state–in this case, for better and worse, violence–but reject formal incorporation by state authorities. Their efforts to gather and distribute information about Boko Haram’s civilian violence have apparently become more sophisticated, especially in areas of greatest need. The militias are a human infrastructure; as their networks strengthen, their ability to warn vulnerable civilians multiplies.

The second feature may be unique to Chibok. The site from which the girls were abducted was a boarding school, which hosted students and, sometimes, parents from across northeastern Nigeria. Chibok is a node–there, the flow of information is a bidirectional event. Civilians who received warnings from Gagilam, the neighboring town, passed that information as far as Maiduguri, the capital city of Borno state. In warning, networks matter, and Chibok’s–rather, its civilians’–was expansive.

Where warning is concerned, the circumstances are rarely as favorable as Chibok’s were. That local communities are an event’s first responders is a well-worn adage of early warning; still, the internal and external strength of these communities’ networks often vary. Where existing networks lag, international assistance may be useful. Global NGOs–Invisible Children, in LRA-affected communities in Central Africa, the Free Burma Rangers, in Burma’s Karen state, and the Friends Committee on National Legislation and Peace Direct, in Burundi–have developed extensive programs to strengthen information networks to vulnerable civilians in conflict zones. These are long-term initiatives, with long-term dividends. A short-term gap remains: among civilians who weather the immediate consequences of mass violence, but who lack a warning infrastructure like Chibok’s, where can local and global actors contribute?

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