Letter from Africa: When will Nigeria's leader visit Chibok?

Rally in support of missing girls in Lagos, Nigeria. 5 May 2014

In our series of letters from African journalists, Sola Odunfa in Lagos argues that Nigeria's president has failed to show leadership over the Chibok abductions.

The date 14 April 2014 will not go away in a hurry from the memory of Nigerians. That was the day the militant Islamist group Boko Haram staged perhaps the most horrendous attack on the Nigerian nation since it launched its insurgency in 2009.

Early on that Monday morning the group detonated heavy explosives at a major bus station on the outskirts of the nation's capital Abuja in which at least 71 people were killed and hundreds more wounded.

President Goodluck Jonathan, quite appropriately, visited the scene of the explosion and commiserated with the victims. But the insurgents were not done.

People gather at the site of the blast at the Nyanya Motor Park (14 April 2014) The Abuja explosions were powerful, killing at least 71 people
A bystander reacts as she sees victims of a bomb blast arriving at the Asokoro General Hospital in Abuja (14 April 2014) A woman reacts as she sees victims of the blasts being brought to hospital
Security officers inspect a damaged car after a blast in Abuja - 2 May 2014 Security was tightened in Abuja after the attacks

Late that night, another unit of Boko Haram attacked a government-run girls' secondary school hundreds of kilometres away, in Chibok town in the north-eastern state of Borno. It abducted more than 200 of the girls from their hostels. The girls were preparing for the national secondary schools certificate examination.

'Working Nigeria'

The insurgents also killed a number of other people in the town, burnt houses and carted away foodstuff.

Boko Haram at a glance

A screengrab taken from a video released on You Tube in April 2012, apparently showing Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau (centre) sitting flanked by militants
  • Thousands killed in attacks, mostly in north-eastern Nigeria
  • State of emergency declared in three states in 2013 but violence continues
  • Some three million people affected
  • Declared terrorist group by US in 2013
  • Founded in 2002
  • Initially focused on opposing Western education
  • Nicknamed Boko Haram, which means "Western education is forbidden" in the local Hausa language
  • Launched military operations in 2009 to create an Islamic state

While news of the Chibok attack was breaking to Nigerians the following day, President Jonathan was shown on television joyfully addressing his ruling People's Democratic Party's (PDP) rally in Kano, the main city in the north. Many people criticized his visit as being insensitive to the plight of the victims.

Information Minister Labaran Maku promptly defended it.

"Going to Kano was a loud statement that terrorists would not stop this country from moving and from working," he said.

The statement could not have been better-said by the president's worst political enemy. Mr Jonathan is facing elections for a possible second term in 10 months' time. His public rating since the April attacks have reached an all-time low.

For the past week or so, women's groups and other non-governmental organisations have been staging demonstrations in Abuja and other cities, accusing the government of not doing enough to secure the release of the Chibok girls.

The public mood became angrier because of the confusion among security agencies about rescue efforts and the number of girls abducted.

A few days after the incident, the official spokesman of the army announced that troops had rescued 100 of the girls and that there were only eight left in captivity. Almost immediately the authorities in Borno state and the school contradicted the army's statement.

Visiting Chibok

They challenged the military to produce or state the whereabouts of the girls whom they claimed had been rescued, and said they were only aware of about 13 girls who had escaped on their own.

In this photo taken Monday, April, 21. 2014. Security walk past burned government secondary school Chibok, were gunmen abducted more than 200 students in Chibok, Nigeria. The girls were seized from their hostel late at night

Since then the military has refrained from making public statements about rescue operations. President Jonathan held a special meeting of the National Security Council to which non-members were invited. Whatever the government is doing militarily now has returned to secrecy, but there is no surfeit of tough talk by President Jonathan that the girls would be rescued safely and that "all those who took part in that act will surely pay for it".

Two Saturdays ago, Mr Jonathan staged a prayer breakfast where Benin's President Boni Yayi was his guest. The session was in honour of those killed by Boko Haram. Many relatives of the victims and other concerned Nigerians are however seeking solutions more potent than prayers.

Members of civil society groups hold placards and shout slogans as they protest the abduction of Chibok school girls during a rally in Abuja on 6 May 2014 Nigerians from across the spectrum have been outraged

Local hunters in the Chibok area led an expedition into Sambisa forest where the girls are believed to be held but they returned after villagers warned them of the viciousness of the abductors. Women's groups now say they are willing to go into the forest in search of the girls if nobody else would. It is a sad reflection of the confidence they have in President Jonathan's government.

Abuja is hosting a three-day summit, which will end on Friday, of the World Economic Forum for Africa. Many heads of government and business leaders from around the world are attending. In order to enhance security, all government offices and public schools in the capital city will be closed during the summit.

It suggests that the fate of the Chibok girls will assume a lower priority until the departure of the Their Excellencies. Perhaps then the president will find the time to visit Chibok.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan discusses with the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on his arrival at the presidential villa in Abuja on 7 May 2014 President Goodluck Jonathan is hosting Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and other leaders at the summit

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