ABUJA — Nigerian activists say the kidnapping of more than 300 schoolgirls in the north a month ago was no isolated incident. The abduction of women and girls in Nigeria is a much larger problem, they say, and kidnappers are almost never are punished.
A protest of a couple hundred people in the Nigerian capital on Tuesday got heated after Borno State governor Kashim Shettima spoke. A month after the girls were kidnapped from Borno, Islamist militants known as Boko Haram are holding more than 250 in a forest hideout.
Shettima explained part of the reason the girls are still missing. “In an insurgency operation like we are currently undergoing it is terrorists that are setting the place of the war. They are people who know the terrain very well. They are the one who are setting the agenda so naturally they tend to have the upper hand,” he said.
He said the abduction of the girls from Chibok town last month was not the first time Boko Haram has attempted to kidnap large groups of children from their schools, it was just the first time they were not stopped.
Borno residents say Boko Haram has long been kidnapping women and girls and forcing them to be their so-called wives.
The group said it wants to install its harsh version of Islamic law in Nigeria, but some analysts say its operations appear to be geared more towards wanton destruction than imposing an ideology.
Outside the governor’s office some activists say the kidnapping is part of a larger problem in Nigeria, where the abduction of women and girls goes largely unpunished.
Actress Dorothy Njemanze narrowly escaped abduction in Abuja two years ago, after she was beaten and molested. “Now we are here talking about another spate of abductions because other spates of abductions were not spoken against. They were encouraged by the government’s silence and we have yet another dimension to abductions. Honestly, my heart is broken,” she said.
Kidnapping is also on the rise again in the Niger Delta, an oil-rich region in the south where militants have risen up against oil companies and the government several times, said lawyer Fillis Obasohan.
In his office in Warri, a run-down oil city, Obasohan said kidnap victims in the Niger Delta tend to be adults taken for ransom.
But he said the problem continues for much the same reason as in the north. Even when kidnappers are caught and arrested, they are hardly ever convicted, he said.
“There are a few ones on trial but for a conviction that has not been really a strong one,” stated Obasohan.
Other activists demanding the rescue of the girls agree, but they say at this point they are not concerned with what happens after the girls are freed.
Media coordinator Rotimi Olaole is with the Bring Back Our Girls campaign, a loose coalition of activist groups organizing rallies, online and on the streets, demanding the safe return of the girls.
“What we want the most is that our girls come out alive. After that we are ready work with government to ensure that this does not happen again, and abductions are reduced to the barest minimum,” said Olaole.
Boko Haram released a video this week that included more than 100 kidnapped girls wearing Muslim headscarves.
The man who claimed to lead Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, said in a separate scene in the video he converted the girls to Islam and is willing to trade them for the return of some of his imprisoned members.
On Wednesday, the government reiterated that will "explore all options for the release and safe return" of the girls.
Hilary Ugury contributed to this report from the Niger Delta