Conflict & Justice

A Nigerian official defends his government's response to the crisis over the kidnapped girls

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Credit: REUTERS/Olivia Harris

A protester outside the Nigerian Embassy in London holds a sign as she demonstrates against the kidnapping of school girls in Nigeria three weeks ago. There's been a world-wide outcry about the abductions carried about the Islamist militant group Boko Haram and frustration with the Nigerian government's response to the crisis.

Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan should be basking in the glow of hosting the World Economic Forum on Africa.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

Heads of state, high powered CEOs and big thinkers all gathered in Nigeria's capital Abuja this week to think big thoughts and talk about big ideas for Africa's future.

Instead the Nigerian President found himself embattled by criticism over his response to the abduction of more then 200 girls by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram.

On Friday, Just as the World Economic Forum on Africa was winding up in Abuja, spokesmen for the NIgerian government found themselves responding to new charges. Amnesty International said Friday that Nigerian security forces had more than four hours of advance warning about the April 14th attack on the state-run boarding school but didn't do enough to stop it. 

Nigeria's Minister of Information Labaran Maku is skeptical of Amnesty's charges.   

"We doubt this report but will investigate it," says Maku. "If the military authorities knew that there was going to be a strike 40 minutes away, I'm sure every conceivable effort would have been made to intervene."

Maku says he respects Amnesty International and that Nigeria's military high command will investigate the human rights group's charges. 

The perceived slowness of Goodluck Jonathan in responding to the crisis has Nigerians and many others all over the world using the hash tag #BringBackOurGirls and protesting outside of Nigerian embassies. 

"My message for the president of Nigeria is step up to the game. Step up to leadership!," said a Nigerian woman demonstrating outside the Nigerian embassy in London. "He is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces so he needs to step up to the game and lead. That's all of my message: Jonathan, lead."

Labaran Maku says he understands the frustration of many Nigerians. "We can understand the anxiety. We can understand the anger. Because we are talking about school girls."

But he insists that his boss, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, has been leading from the start of this crisis.

"First of all the information from this rural school was conflicting," referring to the confusion over how many girls had been abducted. "Once we realized how many girls were abducted, we moved into action."

Maku says Nigeria is using its air force, ground troops, and the country's secret service.  

"We combed through each of those areas known to be where the insurgency operates. Some days, we go to three or four different places based on information we get. So it is not true that there has not been action. There has been action. We have never rested."

Boko Haram militants have killed thousands since it came on the scene in northeast Nigeria in mid-2009 in its struggle to create an Islamic state. They've also been behind other kidnappings and attacks on secular schools in Nigeria.

In September 2013, Boko Haram waged an attack on a college in northeast Nigeria, killing 44 male students and teachers while they were sleeping. And just this past Tuesday, suspected Boko Haram gunmen kidnapped eight more girls from another village in northeast Nigeria. 

That has led to some criticism that the Nigerian government should have had more ground troops and equpment in northeast Nigeria.

"When the insurgency began in the area it was initially treated as a police problem."

Maku says the regional government in northeast Nigeria was at first reluctant to allow a full scale military operation to quell the insurgency. "But after the insurgency got worse, Nigeria declared a state of emergency and got a full scale military operation." 

Friday British and American teams skilled in insurgencies, hostage negotiations, and intelligence gathering joined the Nigerian effort to find and free the girls.

Labaran Maku says the government believes the girls are still in Nigeria.

"We've been in contact with our neighbors in Cameroon, Chad, and Niger, areas where they could easily be taken across the border. We've not seen yet any evidence that they have been taken across the boundary to another country."

Maku says Nigerian security forces have been on surveillance since the kidnappings on April 14th.

"We've flown so many sorties into the area by the air force to see if there's been any movement across the border with Chad, NIger and Cameroon. We've not seen the evidence."

Maku says a more plausible scenario is that Boko Haram has divided the girls into small groups and taken them places within Borno State or perhaps outside northeast Nigeria.

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