The Cable

Why the United States and Nigeria Will Never #BringBackOurGirls

A series of blunders by Goodluck Jonathan and his failure to work with the Pentagon led to the tragedy that allowed Boko Haram to kidnap over 200 Nigerian schoolgirls. Now, there's little hope that they'll all be found.


Boko Haram, the Islamist extremist group terrorizing northeast Nigeria, is responsible for the kidnappings of up to 2,000 women and girls since the start of 2014, according to an Amnesty International report released Tuesday. But hopes of finding more than 200 of their best-known victims continue to drift farther away even as groups around the world come together to mourn them, and Nigeria’s new president now admits they may never be rescued.

Tuesday, April 14, marks the one-year anniversary of Boko Haram’s kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls from a government secondary school in Chibok, in the northern Nigerian state of Borno. Within weeks of the kidnapping, the quest to find the missing students morphed into a viral phenomenon, with first lady Michelle Obama tweeting out a picture of herself holding a placard with the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. Hollywood stars like Anne Hathaway and Angelina Jolie also called for their release. That turned Boko Haram into a household name around the world, even though the movement is rooted in West Africa and poses very little threat to the West. The idea of fanatics abducting hundreds of children was something any parent or sibling, no matter their location, could relate to and loudly decry.

But a year later, despite the global condemnation of Boko Haram’s heinousness, only a handful of the girls have been found. And there’s a very real possibility that no one will ever hear from the 219 who remain missing.

The kidnapping of the students, aged 16 to 18, and the failure to find them show how difficult it can be to translate social media attention to actual results on the ground. As with the social media-fueled campaign to find Lord Resistance Army commander Joseph Kony in 2012, tens of millions of people from around the world, including millions in the United States, used Twitter and Facebook to build pressure on authorities to find the girls. Yet, as in Kony’s case, this momentum did little to affect the search on the ground.

The failure to locate the missing students also shows how hard it is for the United States to operate in a country like Nigeria, where corruption within the political establishment and the military is rampant and can undermine joint efforts for cooperation against terrorist organizations. The Pentagon tried to help in the search for the girls, but human rights abuses by the Nigerian military and efforts by the regime of former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to shift responsibility for the missing girls onto Washington spoiled ties between the White House and Abuja.

Jonathan was defeated in Nigeria’s presidential election late last month in part because his challenger, former military strongman Muhammadu Buhari, successfully pinned blame on him for the schoolgirls’ disappearance. Now, Nigeria’s new president admits they may never be found.

“We do not know if the Chibok girls can be rescued. Their whereabouts remain unknown. As much as I wish to, I cannot promise that we can find them,” he said in a statement Tuesday. “My government will do everything in its power to bring them home.”

Olufemi Vaughan, a professor of African studies at Bowdoin College in Maine, told Foreign Policy he believed Buhari could mount a more successful campaign against the group than Jonathan did. He said the new Nigerian president has support from around the country and is also better connected to Nigeria’s ruling class.

“I think this is very much a change that Nigeria needs badly,” Vaughan said. “The presidency of Jonathan has been quite stagnant on important security issues. Corruption is rampant and quit endemic and that’s at every single level of government.”

“Boko Haram is a danger to the political class,” he added. “It is in their interest to undermine and defeat Boko Haram.”

However, Buhari’s election will not necessarily bring renewed cooperation between Nigeria and the United States. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Tuesday that U.S. personnel were still on the ground assisting Nigerian authorities but that the number of them there “varies from time to time depending on specific assistance being requested by the government.” The Nigerian Embassy did not return a request for comment. Speaking Monday in Washington, Kerry pledged support for the continuing efforts by African nations to find the girls.

But family members say hope is fading that their daughters and sisters will be found.

“I have lost my hope in politicians because they are not doing anything,” Hauwa Lawal, the mother of a kidnapped girl, told Deutsche Welle recently. “Only God can still help us to find them — dead or alive. But our government, forget it.”

The primary obstacle to locating the girls is the part of the world where their abductions happened. Boko Haram has free rein over lawless parts of northern Nigeria, as well as lands across its border with Chad and Niger. Early reports indicated that many of the girls were sold off as wives to Boko Haram members — not an uncommon practice in that part of the world. Some have reportedly been forced to participate in Boko Haram attacks.

But efforts to find them were immediately complicated by numerous abuses by the Nigerian military in the search for the girls. Human Rights Watch has documented numerous instances of indiscriminate killings and other atrocities by Nigerian soldiers. That poisoned trust among Muslim northern Nigerians who were already weary of Jonathan, a Christian from the oil-rich south whom many believed was indifferent to the needs of the arid, poverty-stricken north. Additionally, the relationship soured between the Pentagon and Nigerian authorities.

As reports of human rights abuses emerged, the United States withheld intelligence that might have been helpful to find the girls but was shelved out of fear it would be used to commit further atrocities. U.S. drone flights to help locate the girls have dried up and most of the Defense Department’s military advisors who were sent there in May 2014 to help have returned home.

Now, without Western support, the Nigerian military has surrendered control of some 20 percent of the country to Boko Haram. And the Nigerian military has, to date, shown itself incapable of winning back that territory.

The rest of the world has largely moved on. #BringBackOurGirls was trending Tuesday on Twitter, but without a breakthrough on their location, momentum will be hard to sustain. It doesn’t help that the Nigerian military recently admitted it has no idea where the girls are.

Without prodding from the American public or a quick rebuilding of trust between President Barack Obama and Buhari, experts say, the White House is unlikely to re-engage in a campaign that has been marred by atrocities and shows little prospect of success. And without outside assistance, Nigerian authorities have failed repeatedly to make headway against the group.

As for the girls’ fate: At this point, it’s clear they needed far more than a hashtag campaign to be brought back.

“A rescue had to take place within days of the girls’ kidnapping,” Richard Joseph, a professor of African studies at Northwestern University, told FP. “The notion of the word rescue is just not realistic.”

“The period of transition between Buhari and Jonathan could really be used to put together a different level of cooperation between the global community and Nigeria that focuses on this disaster area,” Joseph said. “It’s a searing episode, but people have to remember that it’s one of a number of them.”

Photo Credit: Anadolu Agency

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