This is my third visit to Nigeria in the past 20 months, and I’m delighted to be here. One of Nigeria’s strengths is its diversity, which grows out of the distinctive contributions and culture of the various regions. And Sokoto is the place with an extraordinary history of faith, of tolerance, and of scholarship in all of its forms. And I just came from a meeting a few minutes ago in which I heard from various religious leaders and from his Eminence (Sultan of Sokoto) of the work that they are doing to try to embrace tolerance and provide opportunity for people.
So this is a very special region. You don’t need me to tell you that, but I want to make sure the world hears how special this region is. And it is special because the teachings of religion and ethics are prioritised right alongside the virtues of reading, writing, math, and science. Many of your former leaders actually started out as school teachers, including, of course, the inspiring Ahmadu Bello.
In fact, shortly after he graduated from a teaching college, and years before he founded the university that today bears his name, Ahmadu Bello returned to his birthplace – not far from here, in Rabah – in hopes of educating his community. And at the time, there was no school. So he built a thatched hut where he began instructing children in his own family how to read and write. Then he asked his young scribes to teach their friends what they had learned, and to keep expanding the circle so that the number of educated citizens would continue to grow.
That kind of commitment has made a huge difference in Nigeria. And I expect that Ahmadu Bello would be proud that, in the country today, school attendance, literacy, and graduation rates are higher than ever before. But he wouldn’t be satisfied, and you know that. Because even late in his career he declared a “war on ignorance,” and that is a war that much of the world is still fighting every single day well beyond Nigeria. The reason is that to some people in this world knowledge is not a goal to be pursued, but rather it is an enemy to be destroyed.
As everyone in this room well knows, in its quest to destroy knowledge, the terrorist group Boko Haram has killed more than 20,000 people, displaced more than two million, and flung some seven million Nigerians into hunger, thirst, and desperate need. On Sunday, they descended into a small village near Chibok in the middle of the night, looting every home that they saw, and then they took food and livestock before burning those huts to the ground. They killed 10 people that night and abducted 13 others – women and children – adding to the thousands of other victims, including the hundreds of girls, of Chibok girls who were abducted more than two years ago.
Boko Haram boasts no agenda other than to murder teachers, burn books, kidnap students, rape women and girls, and slaughter innocent people, most of whom are Muslims. It has a complete and total disrespect for life, the opposite of every religion. It has a complete nihilistic view of the world. It fears knowledge. It fears education. It fears tolerance. In the past two years, it has used more than 100 women and girls to carry out suicide attacks. They actually teach girls how to hold a bomb under their armpits so that the explosives remain steady. They show teenagers how to use swords to decapitate. We might as well ask how anyone could be brainwashed into such atrocities, but because the children are so young and because the abuse that they suffer is so great, even brave souls can be broken. This then is what Boko Haram is all about – and you know this better than I do – not just murdering innocent people, but also transforming the most vulnerable people among us into killers of their neighbors – their own families – and even themselves.
Now certainly northeastern Nigeria is not the only region that is plagued by violent extremism. And sadly, Boko Haram isn’t the only terrorist group that we face in the world today. Earlier this year, an Islamist militant group linked to al-Qaida killed 30 people when they bombed a hotel in Burkina Faso. Over the first six months of 2016, the Lord’s Resistance Army abducted more than 500 people, mostly in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. And just a few days ago, al-Shabaab militants killed 15 people and injured more than 80 when they detonated an attack near an open market in Galkaayo in Somalia. And terrorists from or inspired by Daesh have carried out vicious attacks in Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, and the United States of America.
So make no mistake: We do not have to be the prisoners of this violent extremism. It can be eliminated. No one anywhere has to live, or should have to live, among this evil. And it is evil. But it isn’t going to disappear on its own, and that is something that his Eminence the Sultan understands better than anybody as he preaches tolerance and brings interfaith groups together in order to do the hard work of pushing back against extremism. It takes work and it takes leadership.
And it will require sustained effort from all of us – from regional, national, and sub-national leaders, from the United Nations and other multinational institutions. It’ll take great efforts by law enforcement and civil society. And I want you to know today that the United States is deeply committed to this effort, including by helping our partners to be able to build counterterrorism capacity. That is why at the State Department we introduced a countering violent extremism strategy earlier this year, and it is why we are working so hard to implement it – though I might add you all are already, under the leadership of the governor and the sultan, are already engaged in your own countering violent extremism efforts.
There’s no question in recent months that important progress has been made, and particularly here in Nigeria. Over the last six months, the Nigerian army has rescued thousands of civilian hostages. Hundreds of Boko Haram fighters surrendered to Nigerian forces. In July, Nigerian troops captured 16 of the group’s leaders who admitted that they were running out of food, that their fighters were living off roots and unripe fruit. And just last week, your army thwarted an attack in the northeast and took out more than a dozen militants in the process.
The fact is that through the Multinational Joint Task Force – with help from the United States, France, and the United Kingdom – Nigeria and its neighbours are steadily degrading Boko Haram’s capabilities. Your country has taken back most of the territory that the terrorists had once captured. And Cameroon, Niger, and Chad, and Benin have made important contributions and enormous sacrifices in areas along Nigeria’s borders.
But we also know that beating Boko Haram on the battlefield is only the beginning of what we need to do. As the American writer Henry David Thoreau wrote: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil, to only one who is striking at the root.” So we have to strike at the root causes of violent extremism.
To win the struggle for the future, nations need to do more than just denounce bankrupt, dead-end ideologies that the terrorists support. They also have to offer their citizens an alternative that is better, that offers hope, that actually delivers on its promises.
[• Excerpts of remarks by Kerry in Sokoto, yesterday.]