The incompetence of Nigeria’s president and government is hurting the country’s reputation at home and abroad
FOR the past few years President Goodluck Jonathan has publicly shrugged off the deaths of thousands of people, mainly in the north-east of his country, portraying them as the unfortunate but unavoidable result of a fanatical insurgency for which his government cannot be blamed. But in the past few weeks the plight of 200-plus girls abducted from a school by Boko Haram, the extremist group chiefly responsible for the mayhem, has put Mr Jonathan and his government under an international spotlight, exposing them not only as incompetent but callous, too.
As outrage spread beyond Nigeria’s borders, Barack Obama and other Western leaders, hitherto watching more or less silently from afar, have felt obliged to offer help as well as sympathy. West African leaders, led by Ghana’s president, have expressed unusual solidarity. The surge of global horror mixed with curiosity and bafflement was particularly embarrassing, at a time when Mr Jonathan was about to host a glamorous gathering of leaders, including China’s prime minister, at the World Economic Forum in Abuja, his capital, where he was hoping to celebrate the recent international re-evaluation of Nigeria’s economy as by far the biggest in Africa, well ahead of South Africa’s.
Not that there was the slightest sympathy for Boko Haram and its maniacal leader, Abubakar Shekau, who purported to be the man pictured in a video released on May 5th, making blood-curdling threats to kill all Christians. “I took the girls,” he declared, standing in front of a tank, flanked by masked men in uniforms. “By Allah I will sell them in the marketplace…I will marry off a woman at the age of 12. I will marry off a girl at the age of nine.” Some of the girls, it has been speculated, may already have been forced to marry their abductors for a bride-price equivalent to $12. The UN warned members of Boko Haram, which means “Western education is forbidden”, that if they carried out their leader’s threat they would be committing war crimes.
The girls, abducted on April 14th from a school in Chibok, a town in the north-eastern state of Borno, are probably being held in a rebel stronghold. One of these is in the dense Sambisa forest, 60,000 square kilometres (23,000 square miles) in area, south of Maiduguri, Borno’s capital. The other is in the Gwosa mountains, which straddle the cave-ridden border with Cameroon.
Boko Haram, which was founded in 2002 but began its violent insurgency in 2009, has been responsible for at least 4,000 deaths, mostly in the north-east. But it has also demonstrated an ability to strike at the centre of the country, setting off a bomb last month at a bus station in Abuja, killing at least 70 people, and another one on May 2nd near a police checkpoint, also in Abuja, killing around 20. The capital is now beset with checkpoints, snarling up traffic just when the government wants to show off the place to its foreign visitors.
In recent months Boko Haram has been aiming with increasing ferocity at soft targets such as schools and marketplaces, though it had not previously attempted a mass abduction. On May 5th, however, it was reported that it had kidnapped another eight girls from elsewhere in Borno. On the same day it was reported that Boko Haram had killed 300 people in the Borno town of Gamboru Ngala. Most secondary schools in the state had been closed before the mass abduction, for fear of an attack, but the education authorities had convened the girls at a boarding school so that they could take their final exams.
As worldwide outrage grew over the abductions, the American and British governments offered to help. A White House spokesman said that experts in intelligence, hostage negotiation and victim assistance would fly to Nigeria. The British offered to send surveillance aircraft along with soldiers from its special forces.
The Nigerians have been loth to accept such help in the past and are wary of perceived encroachments on their sovereignty. America has operated drones from a base in neighbouring Niger since 2012, but Nigeria’s government has long refused American requests to be allowed to do the same from Nigerian territory. Moreover, Nigerians are proud of their army, the biggest in Africa, with its long history of contributions to peacekeeping missions, most recently in Mali. And they are also notably secretive and prickly about its operations—and the low standards of soldiery which foreign experts would see. Though Mr Jonathan declared a state of emergency in the north-east a year ago, his army has dismally failed to defeat Boko Haram.
Indeed, it has itself perpetrated numerous atrocities against civilians suspected of harbouring or lending sympathy to the rebels, who thrive among embittered young Muslims in the north, the poorest part of the country. The army was widely castigated after a military counter-attack on March 14th following an attempted jailbreak by suspected members of Boko Haram detained at a barracks in Maiduguri. According to hospital sources, around 500 people were killed, mainly at the hands of soldiers. Such human-rights abuses by the Nigerian army make Western governments edgy about offering to join the fray, for fear of being deemed complicit.
Corruption, Nigeria’s great scourge, is another reason for foreign military advisers to keep their distance. Nigeria’s soldiers say that commanders pocket the bulk of their salaries, leaving them with little incentive to fight a well-equipped guerrilla movement that knows the rugged terrain and forests. Why risk death at the hands of Boko Haram for no reward? It is hard, in such conditions, to see how outsiders could raise Nigerian troops’ morale, let alone improve their military skills.
Patience not always a virtue
Perhaps the worst aspect of the Nigerian government’s handling of the abduction is its seeming indifference to the plight of the girls’ families. It took more than two weeks before Mr Jonathan addressed the matter in public. His government’s sluggish response and its failure even to clarify how many girls had been abducted provoked protests in several cities across Nigeria—itself an unusual event.
To make matters worse, the president’s wife, Patience, ordered the arrest of two leaders of the protests, bizarrely accusing them of belonging to Boko Haram and of fabricating reports of the abduction to smear the government. In a televised broadcast on May 4th, the first lady, who holds no official position, warned against further such marches. “You are playing games,” she said. “Don’t use schoolchildren and women for demonstration again. Keep it to Borno, let it end there,” the official News Agency of Nigeria reported.
Such statements do not give the impression that Mr Jonathan or his colleagues, who face elections next year, take the worries of ordinary Nigerians to heart.