Nigeria: Missing girls, silent government
Parents of schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram are frustrated by the lack of progress in rescuing their children.
Lagos, Nigeria – Families of the hundreds of Nigerian girls kidnapped in April by the hard-line Boko Haram group are distressed over fading public attention and the government’s apparent lack of communication amid a growing insurgency.
As they wait for news of the girls, many people in Nigeria’s northeastern Borno state live in fear, trying to protect their children as Boko Haram carries out its deadliest attacks yet, including attacks in Chibok, from where the girls were abducted.
“This government has become silent on the issue,” said a father of two of the kidnapped girls. “We can’t see anything tangible about the abducted girls. There’s nothing on the ground,” said the father, who like other parents interviewed for this story asked to remain unnamed for fear of retaliation from Boko Haram.
The families have not received any updates since May 26, when Nigeria’s chief of defence staff, Alex Badeh, claimed the authorities had located the girls but feared they could be killed if the military used force to free them.
“That’s the only news,” said the father of the missing girls, referring to Badeh’s comments. “But until now there has been no sign of this. We mistrust all these promises made by the federal government that they will rescue these girls.”
One month after Badeh made the announcement, the US government, which is flying surveillance planes over northern Nigeria in support of the Nigerian authorities, said they still don’t know where the girls are.
“We don’t have any better idea today than we did before about where these girls are,” Pentagon press secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby told reporters on June 27.
On June 26, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan responded to critics in an op-ed in the Washington Post. “My silence has been necessary to avoid compromising the details of our investigation,” the president said, though he did not comment about Badeh’s announcement or give specific updates on the rescue efforts.
“My government and our security and intelligence services have spared no resources, have not stopped and will not stop until the girls are returned home.”
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But a mother of one of the kidnapped girls said she was not convinced by Jonathan’s claims. “If they’re doing something, we should have heard something from them by now,” she said. “We cannot go to bed to sleep at night. All of us, we sleep awake. No rest, no peace.”
In Borno state, especially in remote areas such as Chibok, locals say security forces are failing to protect them from Boko Haram fighters who frequently mount attacks against unarmed civilians, burn homes, and kill those who try to escape. Military officials have said it is difficult to protect “soft targets” in rural areas from hit-and-run attacks by Boko Haram.
“Right now as we’re talking together, they’re in a village nearby … they’re here in the town shooting and killing,” said the mother, who asked not to be named.
Another father of two kidnapped girls said that he, along with other parents, shelters his other children in the region’s bush areas to protect them from attacks on their village. “We stopped living in the house. Some people are living in the mountain, in the caves, some are in the far-away bush,” he said. He wants to move his children to a safer location, but said the roads are too dangerous.
Like other parents of the kidnapped girls, he feels neglected by the Nigerian government and President Jonathan, who has yet to visit Chibok. “He refused to come and even say a message to comfort us,” the father said.
Boko Haram seems to be overwhelming security agencies in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, which last week suffered its third explosion this year. Boko Haram is suspected to be responsible.
The June 25 attack near a shopping centre in the upscale Wuse 2 district left at least 22 people dead.
The Jonathan administration has been late and reactive on the Boko Haram threat from the onset.
Two car bombs on the outskirts of the capital left more than 90 people dead in April and May. Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the April attack.
“The fact that the group can now hit the capital repeatedly is troubling,” said Philippe de Pontet, Africa director at the Eurasia Group, a risk consultancy. “It’s a priority city for the government and for the military – yet despite that, Boko Haram seems to be able to [out]-maneuvre the government repeatedly.”
Boko Haram has killed thousands of people since 2009 in its campaign to establish an Islamic state in Nigeria. The insurgency has left at least 2,000 people dead this year alone, Amnesty International reported in May.
“The Jonathan administration has been late and reactive on the Boko Haram threat from the onset, and to some extent on the kidnapping of the Chibok girls as well,” said de Pontet. The president took nearly three weeks to make his first comments on the kidnapping.
“The fact that two months have come and gone and there’s been no success in the rescue efforts has clearly affected the confidence of the people,” said Ukoha Ukiwo, a political scientist and programme manager at the Abuja-based Nigeria Stability and Reconciliation Programme, which works to reduce violence in the country.
The government could “explore possibilities for political solutions” and try to start mediated talks with Boko Haram, added Ukiwo. In the long term, there is “a need for some kind of economic development programme in the region… to reduce the prospect of [the population] being easy recruits to insurgent groups,” he said. Nigeria’s northeast is among the poorest and least-educated regions in the country.
To negotiate or not?
Even if the girls are located, though, the ordeal will be far from over.
If the military does find them, de Pontet said, “they face this dilemma of whether to make a risky rescue attempt or not”.
Nigerian government officials had given contradictory statements in May over whether the government was considering swapping prisoners with Boko Haram in exchange for the girls. In the end, President Jonathan rejected the measure, although he said his government is open to dialogue with former fighters who renounce violence.
Pogu Bitrus, a community leader in Chibok, doesn’t believe there are many options to get the girls back safely. But if he had to choose, Bitrus said that “given the type of situation, they’re better off to negotiate and get our girls back”.