Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan broke his long silence Sunday on the kidnapping of as many as 275 schoolgirls, announcing three weeks after their abduction that he has asked for international help in locating them.
His statements came in response to intense frustration at home, underscoring how the incident has become a rallying point for Nigerians angered by an ineffective response to the extremist group Boko Haram – and a subject of growing dismay internationally.
Members of the shadowy Islamist group, dressed in Army fatigues, kidnapped the girls from their boarding school in northeastern Nigeria in April. Although a few dozen girls have escaped, most remain missing. Today, a figure claiming to be Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, issued more threats, releasing a statement that, "I abducted your girls. I will sell them in the market, by Allah," in a video procured by Agence France-Presse.
President Jonathan's apparent inattention or unwillingness until now to deal with Boko Haram, whose insurgency reached the capital, Abuja, last month, has enraged Nigerians. Boko Haram has engaged in horrific slaughters in the past six months. But the plight of the large number of young teens, and the media coverage of their distraught parents – not to mention the threats of their being sold off for marriage or worse across the border in Cameroon or Niger – has put the threat in a new light.
Jonathan is now trying to reassure his countrymen, vowing that "We promise that anywhere the girls are, we will surely get them out." He acknowledged today in a televised address that "It is a trying time for this country ... it is painful."
Over the weekend, US Secretary of State John Kerry called the kidnappings are an “unconscionable crime” and said that the US is prepared to help. The US has started to share intelligence with the Nigerian government and earlier this year agreed to help "stand up" or aid Nigerian special forces.
Boko Haram, whose often obtuse philosophy is regarded as generally anti-Western and anti-modern (the name of the group means “Western education is sinful"), has been carrying out grisly hit-and-run attacks in villages, churches, mosques, and roadways throughout the northeast for at least five years, afterwards retreating across the border to Cameroon.
But this year, as many as 1,500 people have been killed since January alone, according to human rights organizations.
The shock of two recent bombings in Abuja that killed 19 and 71 people on the eve of a World Economic Forum gathering was compounded by the military's inaccurate claim in the early days after the kidnapping that most of the girls had been freed. When local authorities disputed that claim, Army spokesman Chris Olukolade retracted his earlier assertion, further fueling public distress.
"Most of what we're getting from the northeast in terms of information is what the military public relations is putting out to the public," says Clement Nwankwo, the Abuja-based executive director of the Policy and Legal Advocacy Center. "From recent reports which showed they put out incorrect information about the return of the kidnapped schoolgirls, one wonders how much to rely on the information coming out of the military on the terrorism fight in Nigeria."
Boko Haram escalated its insurgency after Jonathan declared a state of emergency last May in three northeastern states. Army leaders insist they are winning the war, but a year later, Boko Haram has proven deadlier than ever. Its attacks often take place in remote villages with the apparent knowledge, but inaction, of local Army units.
While the emergency rule seemed at first to reduce the rate of attacks, "the limitations of this strategy have since been laid bare," says Roddy Barclay, a senior West Africa analyst for Control Risks, a London-based risk assessment firm.
The latest round of violence has prompted protests. At a march in Abuja last week, a former Nigerian cabinet member, Obiageli Ezekwesili, spoke out, saying that no country should tolerate such inaction. "If this happened anywhere else in the world, more than 200 girls kidnapped and no information for more than two weeks, the country would be brought to a standstill," she said.
Last week, Nigerian Minister of Foreign Affairs Aminu Wali called for international cooperation to fight terrorism in an interview with Channels Television, a Nigerian TV station.
Secretary Kerry, speaking from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, this weekend, said, "we will do everything possible to support the Nigerian government to return these young women to their homes and to hold the perpetrators to justice."
The US is already talking with Nigerian authorities, including "discussions on what we might do to help support their efforts to find and free these young women," said Marie Harf, a State Department spokesperson on May 1, without giving details.