The long and violent insurgency of the militant Islamist Boko Haram in Nigeria’s northern states is focused on the April 14 kidnapping of more than 200 public school girls. The students were taken by gunmen from a state boarding school in Chibok, Borno State. The kidnappers are believed to be holding the girls captive in a vast forest near the Cameroon border.
Boko Haram insurgents are believed to have conducted the night-time kidnapping, but no group has declared responsibility. Of an estimated 230 students aged 15 to 19 who were taken captive, about 5O are reported to have escaped and returned to their families. The Joint Task Force of Nigeria’s armed forces who claimed to be in hot pursuit has been silent of late. Earlier, a military spokesman claimed most of the girls had been freed. The government withdrew that statement when school officials and parents disputed their claim.
Voice of America’s Ashenafi Abedje asked Chatham House’s Boko Haram expert, Elizabeth Donnelly, about the kidnapping and the events that followed.
“It is most likely, yes, that this is a Boko Haram attack,” Donnelly said. “Simply to mention the scale of the attack … because they would need the transportation and the weaponry to carry out this attack.”
Nigeria needs more statesmanship
The Chatham House scholar discounted the notion that the rise of Boko Haram violence parallels the unusual move by President Goodluck Jonathan to extended rule of a Christian southern presidency.
“Leadership is certainly relevant here. Who is president does matter but it is not about where the president comes from necessarily. It’s about the statesmanship of the president. It’s about the president’s capacity to lead effectively, to deal with this crisis effectively,” she said.
“It’s important to note that the group really emerged as a violent organization under President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua who, of course, was a northern president.”
Boko Haram has consistently vowed that its goal is an independent Islamic state under sharia law.
“I think it would be a mistake to think that if a northern president was elected in 2015 that Boko Haram crisis would go away,” Donnelly said.
Desperate parents sought their own solution
Donnelly said families of the Chibok students are frustrated that the abducted girls are still missing. After days of waiting for government action, some of the girls’ parents rode by motorcycle more than 50 kilometers into the Sambisa Forest in search of their daughters.
“It is a real sign, I think, of the desperation of the parents that they are making this journey, seeking to go into the forest themselves,” Donnelly said.
“This really shows the lack of trust they have in the security services in rescuing their daughters and that they feel that they would have to do this themselves. Because they would also know how lethal, how violent Boko Haram is.”
She added, “Boko Haram is not a group that negotiates. Boko Haram has spent months, years rampaging, killing civilians. So it is a real risk for the parents. It would be a real surprise if they themselves would be able to locate their children. It is a real sign of their desperation.”
Nigerian military faces new kind of threat
Abedje asked Donnelly if Nigeria’s military can resolve the Chibok crisis.
“I would say it does have the capability,” she said, but Nigeria’s air power is ineffective over the dense cover of the forest where they are believed to be held. “So it’s harder to locate them.”
The greater challenge is mounting an assault without jeopardizing the lives of the girls.
“It’s not to say they joint task force is necessarily short on equipment, but in many respects part of the difficulty in dealing with Boko Haram is it is a new kind of threat for Nigeria and for its security services,” said Donnelly.
“At this moment, if this is a rescue operation, it is very much about prioritizing the safety of the girls rather than killing Boko Haram.”
Northern governors playing a role
Domestic politics are a key factor in a nation facing a security crisis with emergency rule and a president in Abuja who is considering a re-election bid in 2015.
“In Borno State and Yobe State, the governors belong to opposition parties. Now, what it significant about the emergency rule that has been in place for almost a year now, is that ordinarily governors would be removed from those positions of power. This hasn’t been the case so far, which I would argue is a positive.”
Donnelly believes the northern governors have “played a very significant role in terms of engaging with the Joint Task Force on the ground.”