What do you do after you brought your party’s control of government to a dramatic end? You become an international scold and blowhard, blaming the world’s problems on everyone else—who have no ability to solve any of them.
In fact, has-beens and once-weres often are brought in as decorations for international gatherings, meant to add gravitas to the proceedings. Three years ago I shared an elevator with former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who was speaking at Qatar’s Doha Forum. He said nothing of note either in private or public, but exuded the air of a man who Still Mattered.
It turns out he’s the UN Special Envoy for Global Education, which must be as superfluous a position as exists. People recognized the importance of schooling long before there was a UN. And there’s not much the international organization can do for a service that can only be delivered locally. Indeed, in poor countries schools tend to get worse the more the national government is involved. Inexpensive private schools often are the only hope for the most disadvantaged and marginalized people in the most impoverished and oppressed nations.
However, Brown recently unburdened himself in the Huffington Post, and the subject wasn’t education. Rather, he said we all are responsible for the depredations of Nigeria’s murderous Boko Haram. Really. “The World Should Be Ashamed of the Failure to #BringBackOurGirls,” he titled his article.
It’s been two years since the group—which has attributes of both insurgency and terrorism—kidnapped 276 girls from the town of Chibok. Boko Haram is an Islamist-jihadist group; its name roughly means “Western education is forbidden.” The militants kill moderate Muslims but typically target Christians, as in Chibok. They usually slaughter male students, but often capture girls for sex slaves, child wives and suicide bombers. Despite promises from the Nigerian government, proffers of Western assistance, and a twitter campaign led by First Lady Michelle Obama, none of the girls have been rescued.
Two years on Brown offered his opinion: “we have all done far too little to secure their release.” Indeed, those enslaved “are now a symbol of our apparent weakness to protect young lives.”
Wow. I didn’t realize that I should have spent the last two years attempting to “secure” the girls’ release. Moreover, I shudder to admit, I didn’t view my inability “to protect” their lives—kind of hard given geography and nationality—as a result of my “weakness.”
The Chibok kidnapping is an awful tragedy caused by moral monsters, but “we” should not gloss over the ugly realities of Boko Haram’s activities. The mass kidnapping was not some unexpected act of nature, but a conscious attack by armed insurgents/terrorists. It succeeded because the security forces that should have been guarding the school and students—police and military—failed to fulfill their responsibilities. Indeed, official corruption and violence have inflamed support for Boko Haram.
Moreover, this atrocity is like those occurring across the Middle East and North Africa. Small but dedicated bands of radicals are committing murder and mayhem against Christians and other religious minorities in the name of Islam. Targeting Christian children is not happenstance, but part of Boko Haram’s agenda. And the blame is widely shared, but not by “us.” For instance, malevolent actors such as Saudi Arabia have promoted radical Islamic fundamentalism around the world. Indeed, the Saudi royals and others like them have made it hard for Nigerians to protect their “young lives.” Exactly what Britons, Americans and others in the culturally Christian West could have done in response escapes me.
Brown offered an answer of sorts—but of the sort one would expect from a “UN special envoy” with little connection to the real world. Obviously, he insisted, “emergency aid funding” for education should be increased, not that that likely would have done much to help the Chibok girls. Indeed, there isn’t much evidence that tossing money at schools increases educational attainment even in peaceful settings. A new global funding program would, however, presumably reflect well on the special envoy’s efforts.
Moreover, he observed that “the United Nations Security Council could intervene and encourage the Nigerians—with the support of the Americans, the French, the Chinese and the British—to undertake enhanced air surveillance and potential action on the ground to secure the release of the girls.” Actually, the U.S. government, among others, encouraged Abuja to do more to confront Boko Haram. Certainly the Nigerian people desire more effective action—which is one of the reasons they ousted incumbent Goodluck Jonathan in favor of former dictator Muhammadu Buhari in last year’s presidential election. Unfortunately, the Nigerian government and especially security services are part of the problem. UNSC “encouragement,” whatever that means, merely creates the appearance of doing something.
Brown then asserted: “we could and should do far more to protect children from attacks and abductions when in school.” Who is “we”? Should I pick up an AK-47 at the local flea market here in northern Virginia, hop on a plane (or two or three) for Chibok and head to a local school to take up picket duty? Moreover, how do “we” prevent “attacks and abductions” at, presumably, not just Nigerian schools, but schools in every nation around the world? After all, children are shot and killed in schools in poor neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., America’s capital.
Brown also suggested: “To show the kidnappers will be punished, the Security Council should adopt a resolution that holds the perpetrators of future child abductions accountable so that the full weight of international pressure is brought to bear.” And who will enforce this resolution? Will UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon show up in Boko Haram territory, wave his copy of the document, and accept the surrender of Abubakar Shekau and his chief lieutenants? “The full weight of international pressure,” whatever that means, isn’t necessary to defeat Boko Haram. What is needed is a competent and honest national government able to govern fairly and apply military force where necessary. Yet another UNSC resolution isn’t going to help.
Finally, “All governments should now support a ‘Safe Schools Declaration,’ stating that attacks on schools, colleges and universities are crimes against humanity. And the international community should ensure the funds for guards, for cameras and simple gates to protect schools in conflict zones.” Does Brown really believe that Boko Haram would have stopped if confronted by cameras, gates and guards, let alone an international declaration? The group has prospered by defeating Nigeria’s security forces. Northeast Nigeria is convulsed by armed conflict. If “the international community” wants to do something, it needs to arm itself and volunteer for duty in Nigeria. Perhaps Brown could lead the way.
What’s going on in Nigeria and in so many other war-ravaged states is tragic. It goes without saying that, as Brown argued, “We cannot ever deliver universal education if we cannot ensure millions of girls and boys in conflict zones have the chance to go to school.” But does he really believe “emergency aid funding” for education would solve the problems of Nigeria as well as Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Congo, Ukraine, Somalia and elsewhere?
Instead of blaming the rest of us for problems well beyond anyone’s control, Brown and others like him should bring their ambitions back to earth. Millions of kids around the world currently denied the chance to prepare for a better future need practical help in their local communities, not UN resolutions, international declarations, and pompous proclamations from special envoys.