The story of the more than 200 missing schoolgirls from Chibok, who were kidnapped by Islamist militia Boko Haram on April 14, gained widespread traction in international media over the past two weeks thanks to the offers to help that international politicians made at the World Economic Forum (WEF) event held in Abuja from May 7 to 9, and after the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls trended extremely strongly on Twitter.
The cause has been adopted by celebrities in all fields (a tweet and a radio address by US First Lady Michelle Obama were particularly influential), and the attention has put more pressure on the government of President Goodluck Jonathan to start showing results.
The saga of the Chibok girls and the government’s failure to prevent the abduction or to find the girls has already hurt President Goodluck Jonathan politically in Nigeria, but as the story went viral across the world he has begun to face more criticism internationally.
Hillary Clinton, a former US Secretary of State and possible next president, said in a television interview last week that Nigeria’s rulers “have squandered their oil wealth; they have allowed corruption to fester, and now they are losing control of parts of their (own) territory.”
The Economist in its most recent edition calls Mr Jonathan and his government “not only incompetent but callous, too,” and says that the government’s actions “do not give the impression that Mr Jonathan or his colleagues […] take the worries of ordinary Nigerians to heart.”
Mr Jonathan has already accepted help from the UK, the US, France, and last weekend his office announced that it had accepted an offer of counter-terrorism help from Israel’s government. In the same announcement, the president said that he was “very optimistic that with the entire international community deploying its considerable military and intelligence-gathering skills and assets, […] success will soon be achieved.”
Foreign intelligence teams from the above-mentioned countries have begun assisting the government in the search for the girls. The US says that it has shared satellite imagery with Nigeria and US spy planes are flying over Borno State where the girls are thought to be held, searching for them.
Looking ahead, a summit will be held in Paris on Saturday, May 17, bringing together representatives from Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Benin, to discuss Nigeria’s security.
The good news is that the high-tech help that foreign governments are sending to Nigeria offer the best chance of finding and rescuing the Chibok girls, and of dealing a serious military blow to Boko Haram.
But this help will come at a price, and the costs of the looming international operation in Borno will have several political effects which are still difficult to predict. The intervention, because it is coming late and looks to a large degree as if it was imposed on Nigeria, will further damage Mr Jonathan politically in the context of the 2015 election campaign, which pits his People’s Democratic Party (PDP) against the All Progressives Congress (APC), a party with strong support especially in the north.
Meanwhile, there is no sign that the forces gathering against it are hampering Boko Haram in its activities: on Friday, May 9, the group blew up a bridge between Borno and Adamawa states and launched an assault on a village in Borno about 150 km from Maiduguri, burning houses and looting vehicles and food. Such military-style attacks on small villages have become its most common terror tactic in the year so far.
On Monday, May 12, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported that Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, had released a video in which he offered to exchange the Chibok girls for prisoners being held by the Nigerian government; we cannot imagine the government accepting such a deal.
In fact, there have already been clear signs that Abuja has no intention to release prisoners. On Monday, May 12, Interior Minister Abba Moro told AFP that “the issue in question is not about Boko Haram giving conditions.” When then asked whether he meant that the government would reject any offer to swap the girls for prisoners, as Boko Haram proposed in a video statement, Mr Moro replied: “Of course.”
On Wednesday, May 14, the UK’s Minister for Africa, Mark Simmonds, told journalists that in a meeting with Mr Jonathan the latter had “made it very clear that there would be no negotiations with Boko Haram that involved a swap of abducted schoolgirls for prisoners.”
This makes sense – any such deal would have been to the terror group’s clear advantage. The offer Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau made in his video appearance only applied to the Christians among the Chibok girls, and many of the others have reportedly already been given away to Boko Haram foot soldiers as ‘brides’.
Also, any release of the girls on Boko Haram’s terms would involve the release of members of the militia being held by the Nigerian government, which would strengthen the insurgency in manpower as well as look like weakness on the government’s part.
It remains to be seen to what extent foreign support will actually take the form of foreign military personnel based in Nigeria – the Americans are particularly reluctant to put ‘boots on the ground’ – but if there is a visible presence of such forces then we would expect Boko Haram and the foreign jihadist groups with which it is in contact to see Borno as a stage for jihad, and we would expect conflict and attacks on civilians to intensify then.
Our view on overall political risk remains unchanged, for now, although the trend line for conflict risk is negative. The risk situation will not change unless there is an important and lasting increase in terror incidents outside of Boko Haram’s normal theatre of operations, or if the insurgency weakens the administration to such an extent that its ability to govern is affected negatively. While both those risks look greater now than they did two months ago, it is too early to say that they have affected the country to an appreciable degree.
The way in which the crisis of the Chibok girls plays out will have important political consequences for Mr Jonathan’s administration, both at home and for its international relations.
Some sort of negotiated end to the crisis would have the best chance of saving some of the girls, but a prisoner swap has already been ruled out and it is hard to see what else the government can offer Boko Haram: amnesty for the kidnappers seems out of the question, too.
The pressure on Mr Jonathan to ‘bring back our girls’, in the words of the explosive Twitter campaign, is enormous and he will favour a military solution. For the moment, most of the foreign experts in the country are counter-terrorism experts, detectives and intelligence specialists – although the Americans say their “teams on the ground are digging in” – and for now it looks as though any military intervention will mostly involve Nigerian forces.
Boko Haram are itching for a spectacular fight, subscribe to an ideology that idolises martyrdom, and have hostages, while the Nigerian forces are under-equipped, scared and in many cases hostile to the civilian population.
A bloody end to the crisis is very likely, and this will further weaken Goodluck Jonathan politically. His administration has already shown flashes of paranoia under the strain, as with the arrests of protest leaders in Abuja at the weekend, and it will then tend to become even more suspicious and unpredictable, with a negative impact on governance.
The effects of the crisis cannot be predicted until it is over, however.
BY FRANCOIS CONRADIE (POLITICAL ANALYST) and CHRISTIE VILJOEN (SENIOR ECONOMIST)