A rebel army hiding in the wilds of Africa descends on a village and abducts women to be “sex slaves.” The Boko Haram kidnapping of over 270 schoolgirls in Nigeria is only the latest example of a phenomenon that has become almost routine.
The conventional explanation is that this is a form of Islamic terrorism driven by lack of respect for women. Now, it is undeniable that Boko Haram is a jihadist organization engaged in terrorism and warfare. And it is also undeniable that Islam severely limits women’s freedom, veils and sequesters them, and generally excludes them from public life. But the simple explanation that kidnapping women is an inevitable extension of jihad terrorism leaves several obvious questions unanswered:
1) Why is it that kidnapping young women is unknown among Islamic terrorist groups within the Islamic world?
2) Why do non-Islamic terrorist groups operating in other parts of the globe almost never kidnap women? Latin American guerrillas, for example, probably have little more respect for women than African Islamists, but you never hear of them kidnapping girls in large numbers.
3) Why is it that rebel armies and other dissident groups in Africa almost routinely kidnap women as sex slaves even though they are not practicing Islam?
The answer goes deeper than Islam and religious conviction. It goes right to the heart of what differentiates Africa from most of the rest of the world and creates a continent-wide culture that precludes both political and social stability. The core of the problem is the widespread practice of polygamy.
West Africa has long been and remains to this day the world capital of polygamous culture. There has never been any restriction on the number of wives a rich and powerful man may take. Any man who accumulates even a small amount of wealth or property is likely to take multiple wives. Jean-Bédel Bokassa, the 1970s dictator of the Central African Republic, had 17 wives and 51 children. Jacob Zuma, the current president of South Africa, has four wives and 20 children. One Exxon corporate executive in Nigeria is reported to have 70 wives.
Writing as far back as 1920 in Primitive Society, one of the first compendiums of modern anthropology, Richard Lowie observed:
From Africa there are reported instances of an extraordinary multiplicity of wives. . . . We find well-authenticated cases of men with five, ten, twenty and even sixty wives. . . . It is clear than even [a] moderate indulgence in polygyny on the part of the socially distinguished would make it very difficult for many young men to acquire a mate at all.
All this draws a bright line between the tribal cultures of the world, where polygamy is almost uniformly practiced, and the great civilizations of both the East and the West, where monogamy has become the norm. Monogamy is the underlying social contract that makes these civilizations possible. It is also the unwritten agreement that led to the evolution of the human species in the first place. We spent the first 5 million years of our existence as monogamous hunter-gatherers. Even where hunter-gatherers have been discovered today in remote corners of the world, they are almost uniformly monogamous.
The logic is simple. If a small band of 20 or so relatively defenseless hominids was to survive in the forbidding environment of prehistory, it had to keep everyone on board. This means giving everyone a chance to mate. Monogamy keeps everyone on board by giving everyone a fair chance to mate. There is “a boy for every girl and a girl for every boy.” It is also what enabled humanity to advance beyond warring tribal cultures, forever fighting each other over women, to the relative peace and harmony of advanced civilization.
Only when early human tribes settled down to primitive agriculture did the old hunter-gatherer monogamy slip away. Men began accumulating property, and the old mammalian impulse of collecting as many mates as possible returned. Once high-status males start taking multiple wives, however, some men will inevitably be left out. They become a disaffected cohort, and the social fabric begins to fray.