In the month since terrorist organization Boko Haram captured hundreds of girls from their school in northeast Nigeria, little progress has been made toward returning the girls to their families.
Nigerian officials reported on May 26 that the military located over 270 of the missing girls. Though the girls have yet to be returned to safety, Nigerian Chief of Defense Staff Alex Badeh was confident the crisis would soon end, stating “Nobody should come and say the Nigerian military does not know what it is doing. We know what we are doing,”
A Twitter campaign using #BringBackOurGirls to gain international attention has involved public figures like Michelle Obama, David Cameron, and François Hollande.
While these influential foreign leaders pledged their support and expressed their outrage, Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan’s reaction to the missing girls has been slow, unfocused and ineffectual by international standards.
A report issued by Amnesty International following the kidnapping contends, “Nigerian security forces knew about Boko Haram’s impending raid, but failed to take the immediate action needed to stop it.” This lack of response left just 17 soldiers and local police forces in Chibok to attempt to repel the Boko Haram attack.
After it became clear that close to 300 schoolgirls were kidnapped from their school, the Nigerian military still elected not to send reinforcements, perhaps fearing a confrontation with the often more substantially armed and notoriously violent military group. Jonathan then waited three weeks before addressing the nation about the issue, despite local and international outrage.
Later, after a “Million Woman March” protesting the lack of action taken toward bringing back the missing girls was held on April 30 in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, the Jonathan administration came under fire yet again for arresting the protest leaders. The nation’s first lady, Dame Patience Jonathan, who is suspected of having ordered the arrests despite not having any authority to do so, is quoted as saying, “Don’t use schoolchildren and women for demonstration again. Keep it to Borno, let it end there.”
The already tense situation was further exacerbated by a video surfacing on May 9 from Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau in which he claimed “By Allah I will sell them [the kidnapped schoolgirls] 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.”
With fears that the schoolgirls would be sold as wives in neighboring Cameroon and Chad mounting, Jonathan came under even more pressure to take serious, meaningful action.
And while criticism of the slow progress made since April 14 is warranted, Jonathan’s reluctance to accept help from the many countries that have pledged their support may not be a sign of a lack of commitment to bringing back the schoolgirls, but rather a sign of Jonathan’s unwillingness to cede control over rescue operations.
The Nigerian military is the fifth largest in Africa and has been actively involved in many peacekeeping missions, most recently in Mali. The 1,500 deaths caused by Boko Haram terrorist attacks between January and March of 2014 illustrate that Jonathan and his military are struggling to contain and prevent terrorist attacks in the country’s northeast region.
The clashes with Boko Haram also highlight the biggest vulnerabilities in Jonathon’s political career. As a Christian from southern Nigeria, Jonathan has been accused of being out of touch with the mostly Muslim north due to the large geographic and political differences between the two regions. Economic depression in the North has both crippled the potential for adequate response to violent attacks like these kidnappings and increased the ability to find new recruits for Boko Haram.
In addition to maintaining his domestic image as a capable leader, Jonathan is also concerned with protecting his nation’s political sovereignty. Though the British government released a statement offering help on April 15, just one day after the kidnapping, Jonathan was slow to accept any international help.
United States Secretary of State John Kerry said the Nigerian government did not accept the U.S. State Department’s offers to help because it “wanted to pursue its own strategy.”
However, the intensity of international and domestic attention concerning the schoolgirls has overridden Jonathan’s reluctance to accept international aid. On May 14, American drones began scouring northeast Nigeria looking for signs of the missing girls. Britain, France, and China have also sent teams of experts to Nigeria to help aid in the search, joining together for a truly global effort to locate and rescue Nigeria’s missing girls.
While Jonathan and the rest of the Nigerian government are certainly invested in bringing back the missing schoolgirls, domestic and international politics are still serious concerns and in this case, limiting factors, in what actions can and will be taken to solve this crisis.