Three weeks after their horrifying abduction in Nigeria, 276 of the more than 300 girls who were taken from a school by armed militants are still missing, possibly sold into slavery or married off. Nigerian security forces apparently do not know where the girls are and the country’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, has been shockingly slow and inept at addressing this monstrous crime.
On Tuesday, the United Nations Children’s Fund said Boko Haram, the ruthless Islamist group that claimed responsibility for the kidnappings, abducted more young girls from their homes in the same part of the country in the northeast over the weekend. The group, whose name roughly means “Western education is a sin,” has waged war against Nigeria for five years. Its goal is to destabilize and ultimately overthrow the government. The group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, said in a video released on Monday, “I abducted your girls. I will sell them in the market, by Allah.”
This is not the first time Boko Haram has attacked students, killing young men and kidnapping young women. The security situation in Northeast Nigeria has steadily deteriorated. In the first three months of this year, attacks by Boko Haram and reprisals by government security forces have killed at least 1,500 people, more than half of them civilians, according to Amnesty International. Until now, there has been little response to the violence, either in Nigeria or internationally. But the kidnapping of so many young girls, ages 12 to 15, has triggered outrage and ignited a rare anti government protest movement in Nigeria.
On Sunday, after weeks of silence, Mr. Jonathan admitted that “this is a trying time for our country,” and he said that Nigerians were justified in their anger against the government and appealed for international help. The reaction of Mr. Jonathan’s wife, Patience, was stunningly callous; according to state news media, she told one of the protest leaders, “You are playing games. Don’t use schoolchildren and women for demonstrations again.”
Boko Haram’s claim that it follows Islamic teachings is nonsense. A pre-eminent Islamic theological institute, Al-Azhar in Egypt, denounced the abductions, saying it “completely contradicts the teachings of Islam and its tolerant principles.” Although Boko Haram is believed to number no more than a few hundred men, Nigerian security forces have been unable to defeat them.
Mr. Jonathan, who leads a corrupt government that has little credibility, initially played down the group’s threat and claimed security forces were in control. It wasn’t until Sunday, more than two weeks after the kidnappings, that he called a meeting of government officials, including the leader of the girls’ school, to discuss the incident. There is no doubt the intelligence and investigation help President Obama offered on Monday is needed.
The kidnappings occurred just as President Jonathan is about to hold the World Economic Forum on Africa, with 6,000 troops deployed for security. That show of force may keep the delegates safe, but Nigeria’s deeply troubled government cannot protect its people, attract investment and lead the country to its full potential if it cannot contain a virulent insurgency.