The kidnapping of Nigerian school girls has outraged Nigerian and international opinion. The failure to find and release them after two weeks has further discredited the federal government and the Jonathan administration. This episode, combined with the bombing of a suburban Abuja bus terminal the day before the kidnapping, has brought home to the Nigerian public that their country’s crisis cannot be walled-off in the far northeast of the country.
With Nigeria’s notorious lack of official transparency, there is remarkably little hard information about the fate of the kidnapped girls. Their numbers are disputed, ranging from 70 (a military source) to 234 (the school’s headmistress). No group has officially claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, unlike the Abuja bus station bombing that Boko Haram warlord Abubakar Shekau has claimed. Nor have the kidnappers issued any public demands. Security service spokesmen state that the victims are being held in camps in the Sambisa forest, and that the military has “surrounded” them. But, according to a spokesman, the military is cautious about moving in for fear that the girls may become “collateral damage” in any fight between government forces and the kidnappers. In other much smaller-scale, kidnapping episodes, kidnappers have killed their victims when the authorities tried to rescue them.
The Nigerian media is also reporting that local people claim the school girls have been sighted being taken to Cameroon after being “married-off” to “Boko Haram” operatives who paid a N2000 (U.S. $12) bride price to the kidnappers for each girl.
There is speculation attributed to military sources that “Boko Haram” kidnapped the girls to use them as "human shields” at their camps in the Sambisa Forest, which the Nigerian military has been pressuring through multiple air raids. According to the Nigerian media, another military source speculates that the episode is essentially motivated by local or state level politics, and that there are “intense negotiations” underway–again, involving local authorities, not the security services. That same source told the media that the fallout from the security services’ inability to resolve the crime is being exploited by “politicians” agitating for the non-renewal of the state of emergency in Borno, Adamawa, and Yobe. (The state of emergency expires next month.)
If the victims are being held in the Sambisa Forest, surely their presence could be detected through aerial surveillance. Nigerian helicopters have been reported operating in the area. Sambisa Forest is not a “forest” in the conventional sense. It is the scrub that is characteristic in the Sahel (see the image above). There is not a thick tree canopy.
With so little hard information, we draw conclusions at our peril. I do think that the absence of a claim of responsibility by “Boko Haram” indicates that the crime was not carried out by Shekau’s group. It is also plausible that the crime should be placed in an intensely local context motivated by issues obscure to Abuja, let alone outsiders. The very strong reaction of Nigerian public opinion against what is perceived as the federal government’s incompetent response is a reality. Even today civil organizations in Abuja are organizing a march on the National Assembly in support of the kidnapped girls. How long the public outcry will last and what its consequences will be are unclear.