Why has the Nigerian military failed to recover the abducted girls?


Armed hunters before looking for abducted school girls in Maiduguri, Nigeria. (Haruna Umar/AP)

They stood in the sun, sweating. They clutched homemade guns. Some had poisoned-tipped spears. Others wore camouflage or brandished amulets.

All of the 500 hunters, chosen by the community for their spirituality, had the same mission: Find the abducted Nigerian school girls.

“We are seasoned hunters, the bush is our culture and we have the powers that defy guns and knives,” one of the hunters, who ranged in age from 18 to 80, told the Associated Press on Sunday. “We are real men of courage, we trust in Allah for protection, but we are not afraid of Boko Haram. If government is ready to support us, then we can bring back the girls.”

But will the government help? It’s now May 20. More than a month has passed since Boko Haram militants descended upon a darkened dormitory filled with sleeping schoolgirls and abducted hundreds.

Since then, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau announced he has the divine right to sell the girls amid reports that some were married off for $12. Local and international bodies have urged the Nigerian military to recover the girls, and many nations in West Africa have now declared “war” on the terrorist group.

 

But nothing has brought back the girls — and President Goodluck Jonathan faces the growing belief he is powerless. “He doesn’t even have the support of the military,” Hamidu Arabo, a former aide to the governor of Adamawa State, told The Washington Post. “The military doesn’t support him, and the politics don’t either. Everyone is dissatisfied. Everyone is disenchanted.”

There is ample evidence to support such feelings. A recent Amnesty International report alleged Jonathan had at least four hours warning of Boko Haram’s planned attack on Chibok, the village where the girls were taken. Worse, for weeks afterward, Jonathan turned down repeated international offers of assistance. Then his wife ordered the arrest of protesters calling for the girls’ return. And last week, he canceled a trip to the girls’ village.

“The president was planning to go but security advised otherwise on the visit,” an official told Reuters.

The government says it is doing everything it can. “Our troops are out there combing the forests and all other possible locations searching for our fellow citizens,” spokesman Mike Omeri said.

But with hunters armed with poison-tipped spears trotting into the woods in search of the girls, some are wondering whether the government has done enough.

“The Nigerian military has the capacity to handle the situation, and I cannot say why they are not,” Pogo Bitrus, a Chibok village spokesperson, said in a phone interview. “They are losing credibility. There is no help coming to the local people … we know they are performing below standards.”

Some aren’t surprised. “Jonathan doesn’t have control of the security apparatus,” Arabo added.

No one does in Nigeria, a huge country with bountiful resources that has been mismanaged since it gained independence in 1960. Five decades of civil war, political upheaval and military coups followed — and today the country is split between the predominantly Muslim north and the predominantly Christian south.

The country’s political past is vital to understanding both the emergence of Boko Haram as well Jonathan’s alleged impotence. The military doesn’t have a strong record on human rights, and its history of military coups has tarnished its public image. “What they say about former military regimes is true,” James Hall, a United Kingdom military attache to Nigeria, told the BBC. “They cripple their militaries so that there can’t be further coups.”

Nigeria denies such allegations. But whether they are true or not, Boko Haram attacks at will, and the number of dead has surged. Amnesty International estimates as many as 1,500 people have been killed in Boko Haram-fueled violence this year. “People are scared stiff,” Bitrus said. “It’s a hopeless situation on the ground. More villagers were attacked by Boko Haram just last night, and no one came to help from anywhere.”

Others said the military is too fractured to stop Boko Haram. “The military itself is divided between the north and the south, and some soldiers in the north aren’t getting enough weapons from the federal government,” said Imam Dauda Bello, the general secretary of the Adamawa State Muslim Council. “People are saying that the federal government knows a lot of what is happening [with the girls], but they’re dragging their feet.”

Bello said military checkpoints pepper many highways, and he wonders how it would be possible that anyone could transport hundreds of girls without the military knowing at least something. “How could anyone,” he asked, “pass in a calm way with 200 girls?”

Terrence McCoy is a foreign affairs writer at the Washington Post. He served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Cambodia and studied international politics at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter here.
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