The Nigerian president for weeks refused international help in the search for more than 300 girls abducted from a school by Islamist extremists, one in a series of missteps that have led to growing international outrage against the government.
Britain, Nigeria’s former colonizer, first said it was ready to help in a news release the day after the mass abduction April 15 and made a formal offer of assistance April 18, according to the British Foreign Office. The United States’ embassy and agencies offered help and were in touch with Nigeria “from Day One” of the crisis, according to Secretary of State John F. Kerry.
Yet it was only on Tuesday and Wednesday, almost a month later, that President Goodluck Jonathan accepted help from the United States, Britain, France and China.
The delay underlines what has been a major problem in the attempt to find the girls: an apparent lack of urgency on the part of the government and the military, for reasons that include a reluctance to bring in outsiders and possible infiltration by the extremists.
Jonathan bristled last week when he said President Obama, in a telephone conversation about aid, had brought up allegations of human rights abuses by Nigerian security forces. Jonathan also acknowledged that his government might be penetrated by insurgents from Boko Haram, the extremist group that kidnapped the girls.
The waiting has left parents in agony, especially because they fear some of their daughters have been forced into marriage with their abductors for a nominal bride price of $12. Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau called the girls “slaves” in a video last week and vowed to sell them.
The military has denied that it ignored warnings of the impending attack.
And Reuben Abati, an adviser to Jonathan, denied that Nigeria had turned down offers of help. “That information cannot be correct,” he said. “What John Kerry said is that this is the first time Nigeria is seeking assistance on the issue of the abducted girls.”
In fact, Kerry has said that Nigeria did not welcome U.S. help earlier because it wanted to pursue its own strategy. Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) said Friday that it took “far too long” for Jonathan to accept U.S. offers of aid. A senior State Department official also said Friday that the United States offered help “back in April, more or less right away.”
“We didn’t go public about it because the consensus was that doing so would make the Nigerians less likely to accept our help,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the issue concerns internal discussions between governments.
Nigeria receives hundreds of thousands of dollars in U.S. aid every year to address a rising insurgency in the north and growing tensions between Christians and Muslims. The northeast, where the girls were kidnapped, is remote and sparsely populated.
The abductions at Chibok Government Girls Secondary School came hours after a blast in the capital, Abuja, killed at least 75 people. Chibok government official Bana Lawal told the AP that about 11 p.m. April 15, he received a warning via cellphone that about 200 heavily armed militants were on their way to the town.
Lawal alerted the 15 soldiers guarding Chibok, who sent an SOS to the nearest barracks, about 30 miles away. But help never came. The military says its reinforcements ran into an ambush.
The soldiers in Chibok fought valiantly but were outmanned and outgunned by the extremists, who then made their way to the school and captured dozens of girls. Police say 53 escaped on their own and 276 remain captive.