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.
First published May 16 2014, 8:26 AM