Nigeria's president shunned help in hunt for 300 abducted schoolgirls

For almost a month, Nigerian president refused offers of assistance in hunt for 300 abducted schoolgirls, leading to anger at lack of urgency

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 May, 2014, 3:12am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 May, 2014, 8:27am

The president of Nigeria for weeks refused international help to search for more than 300 girls abducted from a school by Islamic extremists, one in a series of blunders that have led to growing international outrage against the government.

Britain first said it was ready to help in a news release the day after the mass abduction on April 15, and made a formal offer of assistance on April 18, according to the British Foreign Office. And the US has said its embassy and staff agencies offered help and were in touch with Nigeria "from day one" of the crisis, according to Secretary of State John Kerry.

Yet it was only on Tuesday and Wednesday, almost a month later, that President Goodluck Jonathan accepted help from the US, Britain, France and China.

For a good 11 days, our daughters were sitting in one place
Enoch Mark, father

The delay underlines what has been a major problem in the attempt to find the girls: an apparent lack of urgency on the part of the government and military, for reasons that include a reluctance to bring in outsiders as well as possible infiltration by the extremists.

Jonathan bristled last week when he said US President Barack Obama, in a telephone conversation about aid, had brought up alleged human rights abuses by Nigerian security forces. Jonathan also acknowledged that his government might be penetrated by insurgents from Boko Haram, the extremist group that kidnapped the girls. Last year, he said he suspected Boko Haram terrorists might be in the executive, legislative and judiciary arms of government along with the police and armed forces.

The waiting has left parents in agony, especially since they fear some of their daughters have been forced into marriage with their abductors for a nominal bride price of US$12. Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau called the girls slaves in a video last week and vowed to sell them.

"For a good 11 days, our daughters were sitting in one place," said Enoch Mark, the anguished father of two girls abducted from the Chibok girls school. "They camped them near Chibok, not more than 30 kilometres, and no help in hand."

The military has denied it ignored warnings of the impending attacks. Major General Chris Olukolade, a Defence Ministry spokesman, said the major challenge has been that some of the information given turned out to be misleading.

And Reuben Abati, one of Jonathan's presidential advisers, denied Nigeria had turned down offers of help. "That information cannot be correct," he said. "What John Kerry said is that this is the first time Nigeria is seeking assistance on the issue of the abducted girls."

In fact, Kerry has said Nigeria did not welcome US help earlier because it wanted to pursue its own strategy. A senior State Department official also said the US offered help "back in April, more or less right away."

"We didn't go public about it because the consensus was that doing so would make the Nigerians less likely to accept our help," said the official.

The abductions came hours after a huge explosion in the capital Abuja killed at least 75 people, just a 15-minute drive away from Jonathan's residence and office. Chibok government official Bana Lawal said that at about 11pm on April 15, he received a warning via cellphone that about 200 heavily armed militants were on their way to the town.

Lawal alerted the 15 soldiers guarding Chibok, who sent an SOS to the nearest barracks 48km away. But help never came. The military says its reinforcements ran into an ambush.

The soldiers in Chibok were outmanned and outgunned by the extremists. They then made their way to the school, where they captured dozens of girls. Police say 53 escaped on their own and 276 remain captive.

The following day, Jonathan was photographed dancing at a political party rally in northern Kano city, and newspapers asked what their leader was doing partying when the country was in shock over the kidnappings. The Defence Ministry also announced that all but eight of the kidnapped girls had been freed, quoting the school principal. When the principal demanded the military produce the rescued girls, it retracted its statement.

A state senator said every time he gave the military information from people who had caught sight of the girls, the insurgents moved camp. The military denied any collusion with the extremists.

On May 2, Jonathan set up a "largely fact-finding" committee to form a strategy for rescuing the girls. Last Sunday, he raised eyebrows by saying on television he was "happy" the missing girls were "unharmed," but then admitting the government had no new information from the abductors.


Dutch hostages held in Nigeria released unharmed

Three Dutch citizens held hostage in Nigeria for nearly a week have been freed unharmed.

The two men and a woman were freed on Saturday and handed to the Dutch ambassador, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Joanne Doornewaard said. She added that the Dutch government was not involved in any negotiations to free the hostages, Erhard Leffers, Jandries Groenendijk and Marianne Vos.

The three were abducted on May 4 in the oil-rich Niger River Delta region while on their way to inspect a hospital built by Chevron Corp.

It wasn't immediately clear what their link to the hospital and Chevron was, or why they had travelled without police escort despite the delta region being notorious for kidnappings.

Associated Press