For more than five years, the Islamist terror group Boko Haram has been trying to carve out an Islamic caliphate in the north of Nigeria, in an insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives. But it was not until the abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls last month that the full glare of the world turned on Nigeria.
Now, egged on by a global social media storm, Western governments are under pressure to help Africa's most populous nation find the schoolgirls and beat the insurgency. But the challenges are daunting, including working with Nigeria's military, a force that is highly valued at home but whose shortcomings have been glaringly exposed by the kidnappings.
On Monday, Boko Haram released a video, obtained by Agence France-Presse, showing around 130 of the girls, who were kidnapped from a school on April 14. The girls are filmed sitting on scrubland, wearing hijabs and repeatedly citing the first verse of Koran, followed by the words: "Allah is the only God who should be worshiped and the prophet Muhammad is the only messenger."
Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau said he would release the girls who had converted to Islam in exchange for Boko Haram prisoners.
The video is the first indication that the group may be willing to negotiate. Although the government will be reluctant to bow to terrorist demands, it may have to concede to a degree to see some girls released.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan is making other concessions as well, accepting some offers, at least provisionally, of foreign involvement that he initially rejected. The United States, Britain, and France have all offered assistance; the US has had a handful of advisers on the ground and is sending more. The US is also flying manned surveillance aircraft over Nigeria. Israel has pledged, at least, to send anti-terrorism experts to Nigeria.
However, Mr. Jonathan’s acceptance of help from foreign powers will be strictly on Nigeria’s terms. The United States has operated a drone base in neighboring Niger since 2012, but Nigeria has long refused requests for them to operate on its territory.
Is the Army good enough?
Diplomatic sources maintain that any outside intervention is unlikely to involve any military action, remaining limited to an advisory and technical level. Nigeria is notoriously prickly about military operations, maintaining an almost mafia-like code of silence, and it is immensely proud of its Army.
The crisis with Boko Haram suggests that pride may have been misplaced.
Nigeria has been a major contributor to foreign security operations, notably in Liberia and Somalia, and has long been the largest African contributor to United Nations peacekeeping operations.
Yet despite being one of the most cohesive forces on the continent, Nigeria’s military still come under fire for being poorly trained, ill equipped, and badly organized. Funds creamed off government budgets do not reach the lower ranks of the Army, a fact that limits the amount of equipment for soldiers, who are often seen wearing flip-flops at key checkpoints and communicating to their officers on mobile phones. Low morale has left foot soldiers with little incentive to fight a guerrilla movement with superior weaponry and knowledge of the rugged terrain.
A number of sources argue that Nigeria is loath to open its door and expose its military to outside observation, not wishing Western military officials to see its failings and problems up close.
How significantly foreign advisers will be held at bay or not truly utilized, or restricted from operations in Borno State where the girls were kidnapped, is unclear.
Security sources say the Nigerian forces are still overstretched – leaving them struggling to extract extremists from their lairs. The military campaign has also faced credible accusations of human rights abuses.
“Nigeria’s poor human rights record with accusations of indiscriminate killings in northern Nigeria complicates the amount of assistance we have been able to provide the armed forces,” says a British military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Mr. Jonathan’s soldiers came under intense criticism, for example, for a military counterattack after an attempted jailbreak by Boko Haram that left around 600 people dead on March 14, according to Amnesty International. It was the single deadliest day since violence erupted in 2009.
Split into smaller groups?
The video on Monday by Boko Haram leader Shekau fuels speculations that the girls may have been split into smaller groups to avoid detection.
Finding them in the cavernous Gwosa mountains straddling the Cameroonian border or in the vast Sambisa forest, around the same size as West Virginia, will be extremely challenging. A swap is possibly a more likely outcome and could pave the way for further negotiations.
But for now, securing the girls safely is still a long way off.