Abubakar Shekau from the video that appeared Monday on Youtube
Screen grab
Christian Putsch

It’s the look on the faces of mothers that Sarah Lawan finds so painful. And when the 19-year-old walks by them in the Nigerian village of Chibok, the mothers frequently break into tears.

Lawan, who spoke with the Associated Press, is one of the 53 girls who got away from the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram on April 14. The girls chose to ignore the threats of shooting and jumped, sometimes while the vehicle was still in motion, from the loading platform of the all-terrain truck they were being kidnapped in.

More than 200 other girls are still being held captive. On Monday, a video emerged on YouTube of some 100 girls in veils, praying in an undisclosed location. Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau is seen speaking, and offering to release the Nigerian schoolgirls in exchange for prisoners.

Reports by a local paper that American experts, using satellite technology, had located the possible whereabouts of the girls has yet to be confirmed. No one can even begin to fathom the helplesness of their families, who have been left in the lurch by the Nigerian government.

Other Islamist terror organizations appear to be caught off guard by the high-profile hostage-taking, with one Islamist saying the episode was only being spread "to sully the image of the Mujahideen."

Estimates about the number of deaths Boko Haram has been responsible for this year alone run between 1,000 and 2,000 people, with many of those killed being Muslims. In the northern part of Nigeria, whoever disagrees with Boko Haram’s virulent ideology risks being targeted.

In his fight to create an Islamic state, Boko Haram leader Shekau subordinates pretty much everything else to the goal of proving that the government cannot keep people safe. In the current standoff, Muslim girls are among those taken hostage.

The representation of the terrorists as some kind of bizarre cult has deflected attention from their outright savagery. And it seemed to require an act as cruel and brazen as the hostage-taking of schoolgirls to finally spark the attention in the West that Boko Haram merits, by comparison with other Islamists.

This was especially true during the years of radicalization of the group under Mohammed Yusuf — considered an "intellectual" — before the psychopathic Shekau took over in 2010, a few months after Yusuf’s death. Shekau claims to be in direct communication with Allah and says he's acting on the Prophet's orders.

For a long time there appeared to be no international threat: Boko Haram attacks, in which hundreds of people often died, were concentrated in Nigeria, and mainly in the infrastructurally weak northeastern part of the country — a remote region that has been in a state of emergency for more than a year. The terror sect calls the shots in many places there,and information about the area is rare.

Highest powers

In the wake of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign on Twitter, people worldwide are starting to realize how powerful the organization is. First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama even took over her husband’s weekly video slot to alert people to the fate of the girls.

A few days ago, a general in the Nigerian army said that there were indications that Boko Haram had set up a large camp in northern Cameroon. In February, a Boko Haram officer announced that the group would intervene in the conflict in the Central African Republic, where thousands of Muslims have been killed by Christians. And Boko Haram is threatening to further destabilize the entire region.

What remains unclear is whether the organization really cooperates with other terrorists in Africa or if they’re only saying they do for propaganda purposes. Boko Haram published video material allegedly shows joint training exercises with members of al-Shabab in Somalia. The group’s weapons are often unquestionably better than those of the miserably paid Nigerian army, and experts suspect that Boko Haram gets financial support from outside the country.

Because influential local politicians and traditional leaders in northeastern Nigeria refused international aid for a long time, Shekau has been able to build up a real power base. But two stronger army units — better-armed than forces up to now have been — have now been stationed along the borders with Chad, Cameroon and Niger.

The air force has flown over 250 reconnaissance flights, and police and other security forces are cooperating with an international task force. A few days ago, American and British abduction specialists flew into the region, so far to no avail. At least, however, it appears the world has woken up to the threat that Boko Haram poses, not just to the girls abducted, but to the entire region.

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Merkel's Legacy: The Rise And Stall Of The German Economy

How have 16 years of Chancellor Angela Merkel changed Germany? The Chancellor accompanied the country's rise to near economic superpower status — and then progress stalled. On technology and beyond, Germany needs real reforms under Merkel's successor.

Chancellor Angela Merkel looks at the presentation of the current 2 Euro commemorative coin ''Brandenburg''

Daniel Eckert

BERLIN — Germans are doing better than ever. By many standards, the economy broke records during the reign of outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel: private households' financial assets have climbed to a peak; the number of jobs recorded a historic high before the pandemic hit at the beginning of 2020; the GDP — the sum of all goods and services produced in a period — also reached an all-time high.

And still, while the economic balance sheet of Merkel's 16 years is outstanding if taken at face value, on closer inspection one thing catches the eye: against the backdrop of globalization, Europe's largest economy no longer has the clout it had at the beginning of the century. Germany has fallen behind in key sectors that will shape the future of the world, and even the competitiveness of its manufacturing industries shows unmistakable signs of fatigue.

In 2004, a year before Merkel was first elected Chancellor, the British magazine The Economist branded Germany the "sick man of Europe." Ironically, the previous government, a coalition of center-left and green parties, had already laid the foundations for recovery with some reforms. Facing the threat of high unemployment, unions had held back on wage demands.

"Up until the Covid-19 crisis, Germany had achieved strong economic growth with both high and low unemployment," says Michael Holstein, chief economist at DZ Bank. However, it never made important decisions for its future.

Another economist, Jens Südekum of Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, offers a different perspective: "Angela Merkel profited greatly from the preparatory work of her predecessor. This is particularly true regarding the extreme wage restraint practiced in Germany in the early 2000s."

Above all, Germany was helped in the first half of the Merkel era by global economic upheaval. Between the turn of the millennium and the 2011-2012 debt crisis, emerging countries, led by China, experienced unprecedented growth. With many German companies specializing in manufacturing industrial machines and systems, the rise of rapidly industrializing countries was a boon for the country's economy.

Germany dismissed Google as an over-hyped tech company.

Digital competitiveness, on the other hand, was not a big problem in 2005 when Merkel became chancellor. Google went public the year before, but was dismissed as an over-hyped tech company in Germany. Apple's iPhone was not due to hit the market until 2007, then quickly achieved cult status and ushered in a new phase of the global economy.

Germany struggled with the digital economy, partly because of the slow expansion of internet infrastructure in the country. Regulation, lengthy start-up processes and in some cases high taxation contributed to how the former economic wonderland became marginalized in some of the most innovative sectors of the 21st century.

Volkswagen's press plant in Zwickau, Germany — Photo: Jan Woitas/dpa/ZUMA

"When it comes to digitization today, Germany has a lot of catching up to do with the relevant infrastructure, such as the expansion of fiber optics, but also with digital administration," says Stefan Kooths, Director of the Economic and Growth Research Center at the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW Kiel).

For a long time now, the country has made no adjustments to its pension system to ward off the imminent demographic problems caused by an increasingly aging population. "The social security system is not future-proof," says Kooths. The most recent changes have come at the expense of future generations and taxpayers, the economist says.

Low euro exchange rates favored German exports

Nevertheless, things seemed to go well for the German economy at the start of the Merkel era. In part, this can be explained by the economic downturn caused by the euro debt crisis of 2011-2012. Unlike in the previous decade, the low euro exchange rate favored German exports and made money flow into German coffers. And since then-European Central Bank president Mario Draghi's decision to save the euro "whatever it takes" in 2012, this money has become cheaper and cheaper.

In the long run, these factors inflated the prices of real estate and other sectors but failed to contribute to the future viability of the country. "With the financial crisis and the national debt crisis that followed, economic policy got into crisis mode, and it never emerged from it again," says DZ chief economist Holstein. Policy, he explains, was geared towards countering crises and maintaining the status quo. "The goal of remaining competitive fell to the background, as did issues concerning the future."

In the traditional field of manufacturing, the situation deteriorated significantly. The Institut der Deutschen Wirtschaft (IW), which regularly measures and compares the competitiveness of industries in different countries, recently concluded that German companies have lost many of the advantages they had gained. The high level of productivity, which used to be one of the country's strengths, faltered in the years before the pandemic.

Kooths, of IfW Kiel, points out that private investment in the German economy has declined in recent years, while the "government quota" in the economy, which describes the amount of government expenditure against the GDP, grew significantly during Merkel's tenure, from 43.5% in 2005 to 46.5% in 2019. Kooths concludes that: "Overall, the state's influence on economic activity has increased significantly."

Another very crucial aspect of competitiveness, at least from the point of view of skilled workers and companies, has been neglected by German politics for years: taxes and social contributions. The country has among the highest taxes on income in Europe, and corporate taxes are also hardly as high as in Germany anywhere in the industrialized world. "In the long run, high tax rates always come at the expense of economic dynamism and can even prevent new companies from being set up," warns Kooths.

Startups can renew an economy and lay the foundation for future prosperity. Between the year 2000 and the Covid-19 crisis, fewer and fewer new companies were created every year. Economists from left to right are unanimous: Angela Merkel is leaving behind a country with considerable need for reform.

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