Nigerians seethe at the government’s failure to rescue abducted schoolgirls

Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai poses with five escaped Chibok school girls – the Nigerian government has not done enough to help the others Photograph: Isaac Babatunde/AFP/Getty Images
Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai poses with five escaped Chibok school girls – the Nigerian government has not done enough to help the others Photograph: Isaac Babatunde/AFP/Getty Images

A hundred days ago, 276 school girls from Chibok were rounded up during their exams and spirited away into the forests of north-east Nigeria. The kidnappings threw the militant group Boko Haram, which opposes education and secularism, into the global spotlight.

For Nigerians, it was further evidence of how corruption and incompetence continue to wreak havoc in the lives of ordinary women, children and men. How could a once ragtag clutch of extremists reach this level of sophistication and coordination, completely unchecked by the state?

Much of the answer lies in the authorities’ slow response to any kind of crisis. Yesterday, the Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, finally met parents and survivors. Spurred into action by last week’s visit from 17-year-old humanitarian, Malala Yousafzai, Jonathan felt it appropriate “to personally comfort ... and reassure them” that his government is doing “all within its powers to rescue their daughters”, a claim that might be more credible had it not taken three months for him to deliver it.

The facts speak for themselves: despite international support from Britain, China and the US, among others, Nigeria remains unable to unite the stolen girls with their families. Thankfully, 51 managed, without state help, to escape captivity and return home. But Boko Haram maintains the stranglehold on the region that it established long before the kidnappings. Indeed, killings, fear and destruction appear to have become the new normal in the north-east. In the first two months of 2014, at least 25 women and girls were abducted. In June, reports emerged that a further 60 women and girls, and as many as 30 boys had been taken.

It is particularly disturbing to note that Boko Haram’s tactics partly reflect those of the Nigerian state in its fight against terrorism. In 2012, in order to destabilise the organisation, the arrest of wives and children of militants became government practice. Intent on not being outdone, the group’s then leader, Abubakar Shekau, vowed that kidnapped women would become “servants”, their fate being conscription, rape and forced marriage.

The social media campaign to #BringBackOurGirls had Nigerians at home and abroad shaking their heads in continued disbelief at how little their government was able or willing to do. The government’s response – to hire a US PR firm, Levick – speaks volumes. A better solution would be the recovery of those taken by militants and serious measures to prevent it happening again.

At every step the president and his supporters have shown themselves to be disconnected from their citizens. It took Jonathan nearly three weeks to make a public statement about the kidnappings and even then, he criticised traumatised parents for not doing enough to aid search and rescue efforts.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the government appears to have been harassing key figures in the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, most recently the former education minister, Obiageli Ezekwesili. Image seems to be the highest priority for an administration too incompetent to mount an effective rescue mission.

Frustrated campaigners have been portrayed as opposition party stooges. A presidential statement argued: “Those who would manipulate the victims of terrorism for their own benefit are engaging in a similar kind of evil: psychological terrorism.” Harsh words to level at activists merely demanding the government fulfil one of its most basic duties – protecting its citizens.

A functioning democracy should be transparent and its leaders accountable. These three sorry months have shown us how far Nigeria still has to go. There is heightened security, but the authorities have been vague about what is being done to secure the victims’ release.

Anger is an appropriate reaction to the somnolent response of Nigeria’s government. But in order for it to prompt meaningful action, the rage will have to be sustained and cannot be restricted to the desperate fate of the Chibok girls. So many more are suffering with them.

Lola Okolosie is an English teacher and writer.

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