Nigeria under fire for lacklustre rescue efforts on kidnapped girls

Alia Soliman, Nadeen Shaker , Saturday 10 May 2014

Egyptian activists, intellectuals, artists mobilise in support of international campaign on missing schoolgirls in Nigeria amid muted response in Arab media

Boko Haram
Women attend a demonstration calling on government to rescue kidnapped school girls of a government secondary school Chibok, in Lagos, Thursday 1 May, 2014 (Photo: AP)

For the past three weeks, the world has been following the case of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls who were abducted by the ultra-radical Islamist group Boko Haram and are threatened to be sold as slave brides.

On Monday, 14 April, heavily armed men connected to Boko Haram raided a governmental secondary school for girls and took the girls from their dormitories.

The Nigerian government fell short in responding to the kidnapping rampage, promoting outrage on social media sites, and an outpouring of criticism from many countries, including the US, European countries, and to a lesser extent Arab countries.  

Subsequently, the unfolding crisis in Nigeria has put into question the role of international organisations, the ability of the Nigerian government to control the situation, and the small measure of interest the issue has spurred in North Africa.

Criticism of Nigerian government

The international community, mainly the US, Britain and the United Nations, has mobilised huge support around the issue and has been pressuring the Nigerian government to take action.

US and British experts arrived in Nigeria Friday to help in the search for the schoolgirls still held in captivity.

Rosanwo Babatunde, researcher at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences, told Ahram Online that the Nigerian government responded “too late.”

“Till today there is no daily briefing with regards to the missing girls or response centres to help the parents out,” Babatunde adds.

President Goodluck Jonathan addressed the nation 18 days after the incident, yet he claims to have given enough information on what happened in Chibok, where the kidnappings took place.

Addressing a World Economic Forum summit in Abuja Thursday, Jonathan said the Chibok kidnappings would mark a turning point in the battle against the Islamists, calling it "the beginning of the end of terrorism in Nigeria," AFP reported.

“I expect to see daily briefings reassuring citizens that the government is in charge, the president visiting the soldiers at their base in Borno and a clear chain of communication on events,” Babatunde adds.

As AFP reported, the Nigerian military admitted 18 April that most of the 129 girls abducted by Boko Haram Islamists from their school in the country's restive northeast remain missing.

The United Nations refugee agency said Friday that focus needed to remain on Boko Haram's wider insurgency, aside from the kidnappings that has captured the attention of the international community. The 15 members of the Security Council also condemned the kidnappings on the same day, urging the girls' immediate release.

Action by the Nigerian government and international partners to go after the group should have come sooner, former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan told CNN Wednesday.

“We don’t know all that is happening intelligence wise, but we expected a more forceful approach towards the operations of the Boko Haram. The fact that they strike every other day is enough to give any good military enough clues to predict and understand their strategies and operations, but a situation where the terrorists are always a step ahead of the military is perplexing,” Akinola Solanke, a Nigerian civic responsibility activist, told Ahram Online.

Egyptians show solidarity

In Egypt, an online campaign was launched to show solidarity with Nigeria’s plight, and effotts to bring back the kidnapped schoolgirls.

Egyptians — activists, journalists, artists and others — are individually photographed holding signs and banners that read, “Sexual slavery is not marriage,” “Education is not Haram,” and “No to human trafficking,” amongst others. The campaign falls under the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, which spread widely on social media sites, promoting international attention and action.

Though the slogans directly reflect a display of solidarity with Nigerians, they also raise issues that resonate with Egyptians.

“Egyptians should be warned of people who talk in the name of religion, who espouse that education is forbidden, and that Islam is terrorism,” Fatma Emam, a human rights researcher and translator, told Ahram Online.

Al-Azhar, considered the oldest and most venerated Sunni institution of higher learning in the world, issued a statement last Tuesday denouncing the kidnappings and the ultra-radical group’s threats to sell the girls as slaves. "This action does not relate to the noble teachings of Islam in any way. Al-Azhar demands the release of these girls immediately," said Al-Azhar’s statement.

The insurgency, Emam continues, is a result of an anti-Western belief that Western education is forbidden.

"I will sell them in the market, by Allah," the Islamist group's leader Abubakar Shekau said in his latest appearance in a 57-minute video, reiterating his admonitions of Western education, especially for unmarried girls.

Unconfirmed reports of the girls already being sold in Chad and Cameroon for as little as $12 have appeared, according to AFP.

"I will marry off a woman at the age of 12. I will marry off a girl at the age of nine," Shekau said in the video.

Muted Arab media

“If we remain silent now, as the Arab media has on this issue, no one will support us when an injustice strikes,” Mariam Kirollos, a human rights activist, told Ahram Online. She added that problems of sexual slavery and human trafficking are “universal.”

Kirollos expressed concern at the poor media attention the issue received in the Arab world.

Senior sexual and gender-based violence officer at Africa and Middle East Refugee Assistance in Egypt, Ahmed Awadalla, noted how most of those who are involved in the campaign to free the girls were Western activists or actors, such as John Kerry, US secretary of state, or First Lady of the United States Michella Obama.

“It's important for us as Egyptians and Africans to show that we condemn the inaction of the Nigerian government and the brutality of Boko Haram and that we support the Nigerian people. We need to be more connected to our African neighbours,” Awadalla added. 

For her part, Emam adds that Egypt will lose its already-wavering status with African countries if it does not show solidarity with what she calls a gross violation of women’s rights.

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