By Bill Neely
Deep in a dense forest in northern Nigeria, more than 200 young girls, some as young as 12, are beginning a second month in the hands of gangs of armed Islamist fanatics.
U.S. officials believe they have been split up into three groups, one of which their kidnappers captured on video. It is a video anguished parents watched this week, identifying, through their tears, more than 70 of their daughters.
Their plight has touched the hearts of people around the world. But in the country’s capital Abuja, one man appears unmoved. Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan failed to make any comment on the girls’ kidnapping for three weeks.
This week his office announced that on Friday he would finally visit the village from where girls were abducted, Chibok in Borno state. The president would meet the girls’ parents. The stage was set for Jonathan to show he felt their pain and cared for his people, their children.
And then, on the morning he was meant to go, he canceled the trip.
The Nigerian president wouldn’t visit after all. He wouldn’t see the parents. He wouldn’t even see his soldiers, who, we are told, are searching for the girls. His aides suggested he was persuaded not to go by “security advise”. He’s going to Paris instead.
Since the day the girls were kidnapped, Jonathan hasn’t set foot in the state where it happened, never mind the boarding school where the girls were woken from their sleep and snatched by Boko Haram militants.
His wife Patience criticized the parents who were protesting the lack of effort in finding them. There are reports she even asked for one of the protest leaders to be arrested.
Meanwhile her husband glibly told global leaders gathered in his capital for the World Economic Forum that the kidnapping had a silver lining; it would mean the end of terrorism in Nigeria.
It is a text book example of how not to respond to a national tragedy.
And this is no ordinary tragedy. This is one that threatens to further tarnish Nigeria’s already terrible reputation for governance and competence.
Africa’s most populous country, boasting the continent’s biggest army and its biggest economy, looks today like a laughingstock; a state that not only fails its citizens but callously fails even to acknowledge that there’s much of a problem.
Nigeria’s army said this week it had launched an operation to find and rescue the girls. It has offered no proof whatsoever that it’s doing this. On the same day, its army commander in the region was fired and replaced. His troops nearly mutinied during the week after Boko Haram attackers killed several of their comrades.
The Army, and the government, have been stung by strong criticism both at home and abroad this week.
The Governor of Borno State Kashim Shettima says the federal government has been “deaf, dumb and blind” to the threat posed by Boko Haram for three years.
In Washington, Nigeria’s military was heavily criticized by a senior U.S. Defense official. Alice Friend, the Pentagon’s top Africa official, told a Senate panel the Nigerian army was showing “real fear” in battling Boko Haram and couldn’t match their “brutality and violence,” preferring “to avoid coming into conflict with them.”
In another stinging remark she said “we cannot ignore that Nigeria can be an extremely challenging partner to deal with.”
On Saturday, President Jonathan and his Defense and National Security ministers will sit in Paris with representatives of the United States and EU and leaders of his neighboring countries to try to solve the problem of Islamist terrorism in Central and West Africa. The goal is an action plan to share intelligence and to seal their borders more effectively. Although they are neighbors and scarred by Boko Haram’s violence, there is, for example, “absolutely no dialogue between Cameroon and Nigeria,” according to one French diplomatic source quoted by Reuters.
Whether or not an “action plan” materializes, Goodluck Jonathan will likely return to Nigeria next week with little or no progress to report on finding the schoolgirls. Dozens of military advisers and experts from the United States, Britain, France and Canada are now poring over maps and satellite images. Planes, manned and unmanned, are scouring Nigeria’s vast Sambisa forest. The FBI, CIA, Israeli intelligence — even China’s security services — have been drawn in to a manhunt that has gripped the world.
It just doesn’t seem to have made much of an impression on Nigeria’s president.
Boko Haram Threatens All of Western Africa: World Leaders
Boko Haram, the ruthless rebel group who kidnapped nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls, is poised to become a larger and more serious regional — and even global — threat to peace, said leaders who met Saturday at a multinational conference in Paris.
“It is serious, it is dangerous, for Africa and the rest of the world,” French President Francois Hollande told reporters of Boko Haram, which has relied on weapons and training from other terror organizations in West Africa.
During the summit, which included Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, leaders spoke about how to deal with the Islamic militants and find the missing schoolgirls.
Jonathan, who has been criticized for Nigeria’s slow response, said Boko Haram is not just a local problem anymore.
“Boko Haram is acting clearly as an al Qaeda operation,” said Jonathan, who only recently accepted international help to tackle the terror group, which stepped up its deadly violence in northern Nigeria four years ago.
On Friday evening, suspected Boko Haram rebels from Nigeria attacked a Chinese work sitein northern Cameroon, near the Nigerian border.
“Boko Haram uses pernicious tactics with night-time attacks,” Cameroonian President Paul Biya said.
“Let there be no ambiguity; we will fight an intensive war against Boko Haram,” added Chad’s president, Idriss Deby.
He described the discussions about the schoolgirls — kidnapped by the terror group more than a month ago— as emotional.
Hollande said there was no way to know whether the girls were still together or had been separated, but meetings and surveillance to secure their whereabouts would be ongoing.
Jonathan canceled a planned trip to the town of Chibok, where the girls were abducted from, on Friday because of security concerns. His critics said the decision highlighted his inability to rein in Boko Haram.
“Our primary interest is to locate the girls. … The president going to Chibok today does not solve any problem,” Jonathan said Saturday.
Britain, meanwhile, said it is offering to send advisers to help Nigeria organize its military, which is searching for the schoolgirls. U.S. officials, who’ve also sent advisers to the country, said the effort to retrieve the young hostages is a top priority.
— Peter Jeary and Elisha Fieldstadt