TIME Thailand

Thailand: If It Looks Like a Coup, and Smells Like a Coup, It Is a Coup

A Thai soldier mans a machine gun in central Bangkok
A Thai soldier mans a machine gun in central Bangkok on May 20, 2014 Chaiwat Subprasom—Reuters

Despite military denials, the imposition of martial law across Thailand on Tuesday has been criticized by government supporters as yet another putsch — the last one being the 2006 ousting of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra

An uneasy calm has settled over Bangkok, after the military’s declaration of martial law over the entire nation, with passersby stopping to take selfies with soldiers and businesses operating as normal.

But government supporters and some analysts are slamming the army’s move as a coup d’état, even as the military insists that it is merely restoring “peace and order for people from all sides” in the country’s ongoing political crisis.

“The public do not need to panic but can still live their lives as normal — this is not a coup,” said an announcer Tuesday on military-run television, while soldiers took up positions at key intersections in the tourist-thronged Thai capital.

However, Pavin Chachavalpongpun, associate professor at the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University, says, “I think you can call this a coup … because this is about taking away power from the people, taking control of the political situation and human rights.”

Military intervention is endemic in Thailand. Since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, the country has seen 11 successful coups, 23 military governments and nine military-dominated governments. The current coup, Pavin says, “is a move preserving the political position of the country’s elite.”

While Yellow Shirt antigovernment protesters — a mostly royalist and middle-class group led by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee — have been celebrating, progovernment supporters, or Red Shirts, are outraged.

Thailand’s last military coup in 2006 removed the government of Red Shirts–backed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, brother of the recently ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, sparking years of political turmoil.

“Martial law must be [imposed on] a specific area, but this is the first time the army commander declared the whole country under martial law, so this is a special kind of coup d’état,” says Weng Tojirakarn, a leader of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), the principal Red Shirt organization.

Thailand has been in constitutional crisis since the present round of antigovernment protests erupted in November. Prime Minister Yingluck called elections for Feb. 2 in a bid to claim a fresh mandate, but these were boycotted by the main opposition Democrat Party and subsequently annulled. Then, on May 7, the nation’s Constitutional Court ousted Yingluck on charges of nepotism and abuse of power.

New polls called for July 20 remain in doubt and pro- and antigovernment supporters have amassed at sites in the capital just 25 km apart.

Over the past six months, at least 25 people have been killed and 700 injured in sporadic street violence. Nevertheless, for martial law to be declared, Thailand must be facing perils threatening the survival of the nation, says Sunai Phasuk, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch.

“I cannot see any concrete, convincing evidence of such a threat. There are not enough violent incidents to threaten a collapse of even Bangkok, let alone the entire country,” he says. “There are no grounds that can justify the taking over of power by the military.”

Antigovernment protesters want an appointed administration to enact reforms that will neuter the Shinawatra clan as a political force. But supporters of the family, mainly rural voters based in the north and northeast, are insisting that elections take place.

“We must protect our democratic system but we insist on our nonviolent methods,” says Weng. “We want a political system according to the Constitution [that says elections must be held].”

Thai army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha called a meeting of the heads of government departments for Tuesday to map a way forward. He has said that power remains in the hands of the present interim administration. However, acting Prime Minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan is already facing challenges from a group of Senators, who have proposed the setting up of a new unelected government.

Ministers also say they were not informed of the army’s plans before the announcement of martial law on television at 3 a.m. Neither the police nor other uniformed services were briefed either, creating the suspicion that this was a unilateral action by a military clique. “There is some kind of factionalism, fragmentation within the military, so I think this has been the decision of Prayuth and his inner circle,” says Pavin.

Regardless of what comes out of Tuesday’s meeting, martial law will likely remain for some time. It can be relinquished by a royal decree, but the beloved monarch Bhumibol Adulyadej is 86 years old and ailing, relying heavily on advisers.

The army has meanwhile called on media not to broadcast material that would affect national security, and several television stations have been taken off air. The UDD remains defiant, however, and says that its channel will remain live. If the military wants to shut it down, “They must come here and they must open fire on us,” says Weng.

Thailand’s economy is reeling from the protracted crisis. The National Economic and Social Development Board said Monday that GDP shrank 0.6% in the three months through March from a year earlier.

Foreign governments have expressed their concern over Tuesday’s developments. “We expect the Army to honor its commitment to make this a temporary action to prevent violence, and to not undermine democratic institutions,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.

The Australian government said that it encouraged “all parties to resolve their political differences through peaceful democratic processes.”

TIME climate change

Your Breakfast Is Under Assault From Climate Change

Time to stock up on Corn Flakes. Oxfam says at least three of the most popular breakfast cereals are expected to increase in price thanks to the effects of climate change

Updated at 9:18 a.m., May 21

Cereal lovers of the world may want to start stocking up now, because the far-reaching impacts of climate change could cause the price of their favorite breakfast food to climb sharply in the coming years.

Due largely to shifting weather patterns and extreme events like flood and drought, the prices of commodities like corn and rice are projected to double by 2030, according to a report out Tuesday from Oxfam. As a result, some classic breakfast cereals are likely to get more expensive over the next 15 years.

In the United States, Oxfam says, Frosted Flakes could be 20% more expensive by 2030 due to climate change, and 30% more expensive in the U.K. Kix could be up to 24% more expensive in the U.S. while Corn Flakes could be 30% pricier. British Corn Flakes lovers, meanwhile, would have to pay 44% more for a box of the cereal.

All this talk of the increasing price of sugary breakfast food is beside the point for the people “hit first and worst” by climate change, says Oxfam: the world’s poor, for whom the doubling of the price of a staple food like rice would be no small matter.

The Oxfam report is part of the group’s “Behind the Brands” campaign, which scrutinizes the world’s 10 biggest food corporations on issues from workers’ rights to water usage to corporate transparency. The agricultural industry, Oxfam says, is responsible for about a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. On climate change, the report singles out Kellogg and General Mills as particularly egregious offenders.

“They’re two of the worst of the big ten (but) they’re not the only bottom dwellers,” says Heather Coleman, Oxfam’s climate program manager. Coleman says Oxfam wants to see food companies—which are uniquely threatened by climate change among major corporations—pressure governments to act on climate fixes.

The global aid charity is pressing business and trade groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to drop opposition to climate legislation, and invest in sustainable carbon-friendly supply chains from farm to table. “What we’re saying is that they’re standing on the sidelines. It’s time for them to stand up and call on governments to act meaningfully,” Coleman said.

In a statement to TIME, General Mills linked to a blog post about its efforts to address climate change and said, “Climate change is a serious issue, we agree. But we strongly disagree with this assessment of our efforts.” Kellogg told TIME the company is “working on multiple fronts to further reduce our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and waste, as well as the energy and water we use. As we do so, we value continued engagement and discussion with Oxfam, and other external stakeholders on the important issues of environmental and social responsibility.”

TIME Thailand

Thai Army Declares Martial Law

Thailand Politics
Thai soldiers gather after arriving outside the building of the National Broadcasting Services of Thailand in Bangkok on May 20, 2014 Apichart Weerawong—AP

Antigovernment protests have been mounting for the past six months, but calls for political reform have reached an impasse

Thailand’s army declared martial law on Tuesday, in an effort to “keep peace and order” a day after the Southeast Asian nation’s acting Prime Minister refused to resign amid mounting protests.

Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan insisted he “can carry out duties and has full authority” as Prime Minister, the Associated Press reports. He added that the cabinet could not resign either because “it will be negligence of duty and against the constitution.” Former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and nine cabinet members were removed from office in April on charges of nepotism and abuse of power, but protesters claim the ouster was politically motivated.

Under Thai law, a new government must typically be elected, but protesters have vowed to block elections unless major political reform takes place. Until then, they are calling for an interim Prime Minister and cabinet to be appointed. A group of 70 Senators has proposed a new government that would enact reforms, but has little recourse unless the current leadership resigns.

A military-run television station aired an announcement on Tuesday that said, “The public do not need to panic but can still live their lives as normal,” BBC reports.

The protests, which have lasted six months, have led to 28 deaths and hundreds of injuries. Since 1932, the country’s army has staged 11 coups.

[AP]

TIME National Security

Islamist Cleric Abu Hamza Guilty on Terrorism Charges

MUSLIM CLERIC SHEIKH ABU HAMZA AL-MASRI ADDRESSES SIXTH ANNUAL RALLYFOR ISLAM IN LONDON.
Radical Islamist cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri addresses an annual rally for Islam in Trafalgar Square, London, on Aug. 25, 2002 Ian Waldie—Reuters

The hook-handed hate preacher now faces life behind bars for role in an al-Qaeda kidnapping of American citizens in 1998

Radical Islamist cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri was found guilty on 11 terrorism charges in a New York court on Monday.

A jury found the fundamentalist imam, who was tried as Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, guilty of conspiring to aid al-Qaeda in a Yemen kidnapping of American citizens in 1998 and of sending men to terrorist training camps. He now faces life in prison, the Associated Press reports.

The Egypt-born cleric was formerly based in London, where he became notorious for giving outdoor sermons condemning the West, and praising Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 hijackers. The mosque where he preached was also frequented by shoe bomber Richard Reid, though Abu Hamza claims he never met him.

Abu Hamza was extradited to the U.S. in 2012 after spending seven years in a British jail for inciting murder and racial hatred. He was nicknamed Hook by the British tabloids on account of his scarred appearance, having lost both hands and an eye while working on a civil-engineering project in Pakistan in 1993.

[AP]

TIME foreign affairs

5 Promises Narendra Modi Must Break

Narendra Modi addressing a rally in Vadodara
PM-designate Narendra Modi addressing a rally in Vadodara, Gujarat, after the BJP won the Lok Sabha elections on Friday, May 16, 2014. The India Today Group—India Today Group/Getty Images

The newly elected Prime Minister will have to reverse course on some campaign pledges if he wants to turn around India's economy.

Narendra Modi won India’s national elections by a virtually unprecedented parliamentary supermajority, routing the ruling Congress Party. He pulled off this feat by overcoming his image as a militant Hindu nationalist and positioning himself as the Indian avatar of Ronald Reagan, promising to take India’s moribund economy to new heights with his formula of “maximum governance, minimum government.”

But he also made many unwise campaign promises that directly contradict his mantra. He’ll have to break at least five of them if he’s to have a prayer of delivering the growth he promised.

1. Stop Propping Up Inefficient Public Sector Companies

More than 20% of India’s economy consists of poorly run, federally owned companies. About one-third of them operate on a loss, and the rest return profits of less than 1% annually. Hence, a reformer who believes in “small government” must make aggressive privatization his top priority.

Instead, last month, Modi made the face-palm inducing statement that beating up on these companies has “done much damage” to them. He promised to fix, not sell, them by squeezing out – wait for this! — “administrative inefficiencies.” But central planners since Lenin have been trying to do just that without success.

So unless he knows something that they didn’t, he’d be doing the country a favor by putting them out of their misery.

2. Abandon Gaudy Infrastructure Projects

There is no doubt that India needs to improve its infrastructure – pathetic even by developing countries’ standards – if it wants to boost productivity and growth. (Indians joke that while the British drive on the left of the road, Indians drive on what’s left of the road.) But India is a poor country with not a lot of spare change. So a believer in “good governance” would focus, laser-like, on core public goods like sewage, water, roads and electricity. Just upgrading these to minimum international standards, according to global consulting company McKinsey, will require an investment of $1.2 trillion over 20 years, about eight times more than currently proposed.

Instead, Modi has produced an infrastructure development plan as gaudy as Liberace’s Christmas tree, complete with “bullet trains in four directions.” The bullet train or high-speed rail concept was obviously calculated to pander to India’s chauvinistic desire to keep up with China. But these rails are white elephants on which China’s autocrats spend unsustainable amounts because they rarely pay for themselves, my Reason Foundation colleague Baruch Feigenbaum points out. So Modi would be better off abandoning them along with his other loopy plans for smart cities and elite universities.

3. Kill Wasteful Subsidies

Modi’s stump speeches repeatedly, and rightly, reminded voters that the Congress Party’s game of “vote-bank politics” – handing welfare subsidies to special constituencies to win votes – was ruining the country without improving living standards. Modi’s solution? More subsidies.

He was totally on board with Congress’ scheme to guarantee 100 days of income to rural families without an employed male –- a massive disincentive to work. True, he did criticize the Food Security Act that handled means-tested food assistance. But why? Because it wasn’t generous enough. He has pledged to guarantee farmers 50% profits, something that even Congress couldn’t bring itself to do.

Worse, his party’s platform proposed to add the Right to Health to the long list of rights that the departing party has already put on the books.

If Modi really wants live up to his billing as a Reagan-like reformer rather than becoming the second coming of Jimmy Carter, he ought to get rid of these programs, replacing them with a scaled back direct cash-transfer scheme that hands poor people a lump sum to spend as they see fit. This will have a better shot of reaching the pockets of intended beneficiaries rather than corrupt bureaucrats.

4. Let in Big Box Foreign Retailers

One of the few politically difficult reforms that Congress enacted was allowing foreign supermarkets such as Walmart to own a majority stake in local retail stores. India’s $500 billion retail industry is among the most backward in the world and could badly use an infusion of capital and expertise to modernize itself.

However, Modi, this fearless reformer who prides himself on having attracted a record amount of foreign investment in Gujarat, agreed to scrap this law. Why? Because it threatened millions of small mom-and-pop storeowners, his party’s core base.

In the last few days, he’s started reversing course, telling storeowners to treat globalization as an opportunity, not a threat. That’s a tune he should keep humming.

5. Keep Inflation Hawk Raghuram Rajan as India’s Central Banker

After experiencing heady growth for about a decade, India has been in the grip of soul-sapping stagflation, with inflation outpacing GDP growth by a factor of two. Congress had wisely invited University of Chicago’s Raghuram Rajan to head the Reserve Bank, India’s equivalent of the Fed, to tackle inflation.

But Modi has been sending mixed signals about whether he’ll keep Rajan. That’s because Rajan might insist on an inflation-targeting regime. This will mean keeping interest rates high until inflation has been slashed from the current 9% to 4% or so.

However, this will make government borrowing to finance Modi’s gaudy infrastructure plans — as well as private borrowing for capital investments — much more difficult. The latter, sadly, is at an 11-year low, severely crimping jobs and growth.

Modi is admittedly between a rock and a hard place on this. But Reagan, his role model, allowed the central bank to first squeeze out inflation, and so should Modi.

He could raise funds for needed, not feel-good, infrastructure projects by eliminating wasteful subsidies, selling off inefficient public companies and inviting foreign investment, which is all the more reason to break the other four promises.

Shikha Dalmia is a senior policy analyst at Reason Foundation. The views expressed are solely her own.

TIME movies

MH370 Movie Plumbs New Depths of Bad Taste at Cannes

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and the 239 people aboard haven't even been found yet, but an opportunistic filmmaker is already shopping a movie in Cannes telling the "true" story of what happened to the vanished jet

If the Cannes Film Festival had an award for most squirm-inducing production, it would surely go to the producers of a new thriller telling the “real” story of the still-missing Malaysian Airlines jet.

The Vanishing Act: The Untold Story of the Missing Malaysian Plane is the brainchild of Indian film company Rupesh Paul Productions, and purports to tell the hidden story of Flight 370 based on an investigative report that was widely discredited, as the director himself remarked to CNN. “It is definitely controversial,” said Rupesh Paul.

Little more than two months have passed since the Malaysia Airlines jet vanished with 239 people on board, and in that time the film production team has given the film a title, printed 8-page promotional brochures, edited a trailer and, according to Paul, courted interested investors from China and Malaysia.

Paul’s previous productions include the “epic of all epics” Kamasutra 3D and Saint Dracula 3D.

[CNN]

 

TIME Israel

Pope’s Upcoming Visit to Holy Land Marred By Attacks on Churches

Israeli officials blame Jewish extremists for the surge in anti-Christian vandalism

As the Israeli government prepares to welcome Pope Francis on his first visit as Pope later this month, vandals have scrawled hate-filled graffiti at some Christian sites. “Jesus is garbage,” “Death to Christians” and “We will crucify you” are among the messages that have been spray-painted on the walls of Christian churches and monasteries in Israel in recent weeks.

Although no arrests have been made, Israeli officials say they suspect Jewish extremists of being behind the vandalism. Israeli officials link the surge to the Pope’s visit, which appears to have ignited resentment toward Christianity by some Israeli Jews. A small minority of Israeli Jews blames Christians for past violence by Christians against Jews and for what they perceive as ongoing attempts to convert Jews to Christianity.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said most of the perpetrators act individually: “It’s not like dealing with a terror organization.”

Pope Francis’ three-day visit starts in Jordan on May 24. He then travels to Bethlehem in the West Bank, and Jerusalem, where he will visit Yad Vashem, the museum commemorating victims of the Holocaust. The trip was scheduled to commemorate the 50th anniversary of rapprochement between Pope Paul VI and the leader of the Orthodox Christian church. Publicity over the church attacks – not seen before previous papal visits – has some Israelis asking why it’s happening now. “The question to ask is what kind of Israeli state do we want here? Our educational challenge is to promote respect to the other,” says Amnon Ramon, a specialist on Christianity at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, an independent think tank.

Amos Oz, perhaps Israel’s most celebrated author, called the extremists “Hebrew neo-Nazis” at a public event, adding that perpetrators “enjoy the backing of numerous nationalist lawmakers — maybe even racist — and also rabbis who give them a foundation that is, in my opinion, pseudo-religious.” Oz’s remarks stirred up a fresh wave of debate and name-calling, an unwelcome drum-roll for a papal visit intended to celebrate the overcoming of historical enmities.

 

 

TIME Earnings

Swiss Voters Reject a $25 Minimum Wage

SWITZERLAND-VOTE-LABOUR-DEFENCE
A man arrives to casts his ballot during a referendum on May 18, 2014 in Bulle, western Switzerland. FABRICE COFFRINI—AFP/Getty Images

The country showed that minimum wage hikes, while generally popular, do have their outer limits

Swiss voters resoundingly rejected a bill on Sunday that would have vaulted the nation’s minimum wage to $25 an hour, the highest wage floor in the world.

The Minimum Wage Initiative, advocated by the Swiss Trades Union Confederation, suffered an overwhelming defeat at the polls, with 76% of Swiss voters opposing the bill. It marks an unusual defeat for a policy that typically polls well the world over.

In the US, 71% of voters back President Barack Obama’s proposal for a minimum wage hike. In Germany, 81% of voters supported a similar proposal from German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

But the scale of Switzerland’s proposed hike, vaulting it two times ahead of the most generous minimum wage rate in the world ($10.66 an hour, compliments of Luxembourg), clearly had Swiss voters on edge.

Untitled
Source: OECD

The referendum offers an interesting test case of where in the voters’ mind a wage hike leaves the realm of economic reality and soars into Alpine-high levels of wishful thinking. After all, if the Swiss bill became U.S. law tomorrow, it would require instant wage renegotiations for 620 occupations across the country, all of which pay less than $25 an hour on average. A sampling of those occupations is below.

MinWages
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Workers in jobs ranging from flipping burgers to preparing taxes to writing articles like this one would be vaulted up the pay ladder, but would they be able to keep their jobs along the way?

Swiss voters registered their doubts at the polls on Sunday, effectively setting an outer boundary for public debates on wage floors – $10, yes, but $25? Come back down to earth.

TIME Obesity

U.N. Official Says Junk Food Just as Bad as Cigarettes

U.N. Special Rapporteur on the right to food Olivier De Schutter warned that obesity is a bigger global health threat than tobacco use, lamenting that it isn't taken as seriously as it should be

A United Nations official called for greater regulation of unhealthy foods on Monday, saying junk food is just as bad for global health as tobacco.

Olivier De Schutter, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the right to food, said the world needs to come together to regulate diet. “Unhealthy diets are now a greater threat to global health than tobacco,” he said in a speech at the opening of the World Health Organization’s annual summit. “Just as the world came together to regulate the risks of tobacco, a bold framework convention on adequate diets must now be agreed.”

De Schutter voiced frustration that the world hasn’t taken obesity seriously enough. “It has been two years since my report on nutrition and the right to food, and ten years since the World Health Organization (WHO) launched its Global Strategy on Diet Physical Activity and Health,” he said. “Yet obesity continues to advance—and diabetes, heart disease and other health complications along with it. The warning signs are not being heard.”

The Special Rapporteur has previously agitated for greater governmental action on junk foods, including taxing unhealthy products, regulating fats and sugars, cracking down on advertising for junk food, and rethinking agricultural subsidies that make unhealthy food cheaper.

“Governments have been focusing on increasing calorie availability,” he said, “but they have often been indifferent to what kind of calories are on offer, at what price, to whom they are made available, and how they are marketed.”

TIME foreign affairs

Too Many of Nigeria’s Women Are Targets—Not Just the Kidnapped Girls

Protest Against Abduction Of Nigerian Schoolgirls In Wellington
People protest against the abduction of Nigerian schoolgirls at the Civic Square on May 14, 2014 in Wellington, New Zealand. Marty Melville—Getty Images

When Nigerian states adopt sharia laws that are in their application blatantly unfavorable to women, it creates an environment in which a terrorist group like Boko Haram believes it has a right to do as it pleases with girls without prosecution.

Boko Haram’s recent kidnappings of schoolgirls from the town of Chibok in Borno state, Nigeria, at least in its explosive aftermath, is reminiscent of the legal cases of two northern Nigerian women, Safiya Hussaini and Amina Lawal, who were sentenced to death by stoning under sharia law in 2002. Though unrelated – the stoning sentences were state-sanctioned punishments that were later overturned, and the kidnappings are a criminal act by a terrorist group – these cases illustrate how the legal climate in northern Nigeria has reached a point where girls can be seen as chattels to be taken, held, sold and, according to the latest video purportedly released by Boko Haram, indoctrinated and bartered.

Before 2000, the scope of sharia law in Nigeria was limited to civil cases. Since then, nine northern Nigerian states have adopted sharia law fully, to include criminal cases as well. A further three northern states have adopted sharia law in populations where Muslims are the majority. Sharia law, a group of Islamic moral codes and laws that determine what is and isn’t allowed for Muslims, exists side by side with civil law in these states.

The case of Hussaini, a divorced mother, was the first of its kind in Nigeria to have an international impact following the adoption of sharia law into the penal code system in some northern Nigerian states. Hussaini’s crime was that she had a child out of wedlock, with a married man. Despite being divorced, she was tried for adultery and sentenced in a sharia court in Sokoto state. In the month her case was dismissed after an appeal, Amina Lawal, another divorced mother, was sentenced for the same crime in a sharia court in Katsina state. Lawal’s case was eventually overturned in 2003 by a sharia court of appeal.

In both cases, the women won their appeals because of the grassroots efforts of activists, such as human rights lawyer Hauwa Ibrahim and Dr. Ayesha Imam of Baobab for Women’s Human Rights, both are highly accomplished women from northern Nigeria. Also in both cases, the fathers of Hussaini and Lawal’s children were not prosecuted. To prosecute men for adultery, four male eyewitnesses are required. Hussaini, after her sentencing, allegedly said that her crime was being a woman. Meanwhile, the attorney general of Sokoto, Aliyu Abubakar Sanyinna, declared the sharia court was merely following Allah’s law.

In 1999, the then governor of Zamfara state, Ahmed Sani Yerima, began a campaign to adopt sharia law in his state, and in 2000 became the first governor to formally adopt sharia when the law took effect. The federal government considers the adoption of sharia law a state right, but has criticized sharia punishments such as stonings, hand amputations and floggings. Despite the objections of members of the judiciary, the adoption of sharia law remains a state right in Nigeria.

Boko Haram’s kidnappings may not have been state-sanctioned, but its leader, Abubakar Shekau, declared that the group was following Allah’s order. Regardless of his fanatical motivation, the kidnappings were a criminal act and should have been handled as such by state authorities. But they failed to address the matter until it became a national and international embarrassment.

The facts surrounding the kidnappings are still unclear: for instance, were state authorities warned about Boko Haram’s plans? What is clear is that for a state that would have been swift to prosecute the girls for adultery and other sharia-related crimes, Borno was incredibly slow to respond when the girls became victims of a crime. Shekau’s response to the national outcry that ensued—that he would sell the girls as slaves in the market—is evidence of Boko Haram’s assumption of ownership of the girls, and it begs the question, “what gave him the right to make such a reprehensible statement?” Shekau has made known his wish to see sharia law imposed throughout Nigeria. I would suggest that when a state adopts sharia laws that are in their application blatantly unfavorable to women, it creates a legal climate in which a terrorist group like Boko Haram believes it has a right to do as it pleases with girls without prosecution.

I doubt that any level of public outrage in Nigeria would change how Boko Haram sees the girls. I say this as a Nigerian woman of Muslim parentage who writes fiction and plays to protest the adoption of sharia law in northern Nigeria, and who has often wondered if there is any value in doing that. Nigerians knew not to bother addressing Boko Haram when they began their campaign to “Bring Back Our Girls”; otherwise, their campaign slogan would have been “Release Our Girls.” If nothing else, the outrage of the rest of the world forced our president, Goodluck Jonathan, to declare his commitment to finding the girls and returning them to their families.

It should also, once again, put a spotlight on the adoption of sharia law in northern Nigeria and its dangerous trajectory. I worry that Boko Haram might confuse the negative attention they’re getting worldwide for acclaim, and trying to shame them as a group of cowardly men scared of girls might only encourage them to toughen their stance. But without the international attention the kidnappings have received, we might still be waiting for the findings of yet another committee on terrorism.

The Nigerian government has yet to catch up with acts of terrorism, and Boko Haram may well be afraid of girls and their potential to develop into educated, accomplished women. But, ultimately, Boko Haram kidnapped the schoolgirls because, in the current legal climate in northern Nigeria, they could.

Sefi Atta is the author of Everything Good Will Come, Swallow, News from Home and A Bit of Difference. Also a playwright, her radio plays have been broadcast by the BBC and her stage plays have been produced internationally. Her play Hagel auf Zamfara, adapted from her short story “Hailstones on Zamfara” and directed by Nick Monu, finished its two-year run in Germany in 2013. In 2006, she was awarded the Wole Soyinka Prize for Publishing in Africa, and in 2009, the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa. She divides her time between Nigeria, England and the U.S.

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