In April 2014, the sleepy town of Chibok in Borno State was thrust first into national, and then international limelight when 276 female students from a local high school were abducted by the Islamist terrorist group, Boko Haram.
It’s difficult to remember now how slowly news of the abduction trickled out. In part it was because of how remote Chibok is—just under 600 miles of barely motorable roads to the Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. However, it still took, then president, Goodluck Jonathan, two weeks before he spoke about the abduction.
It has been four years since the Chibok girls’ abduction and there is a very different administration running Nigeria under president Muhammadu Buhari, but the mistakes that were made then are playing out almost exactly the same way with the recent Dapchi girls’ abduction.
Armed fighters, believed to be Boko Haram militants, showed up with trucks in the small town in the northeastern state of Yobe, on Monday (Feb. 19), and specifically asked residents for directions to the local school which they attacked soon after and kidnapped scores of female students. It’s the first known large-scale schoolgirl abduction since Chibok.
Since the abduction, there have been conflicting reports on the numbers of girls taken by the terrorist group, ranging from 50 to as high as 105. Again, the lack of clarity is all too reminiscent of the confusion with the Chibok girls’ abduction.
Back then, there were a number of avoidable errors: from claiming the location of the girls was known, and yet not carrying out any rescue operation to attempts to shift blame for the abduction to the Borno state governor who was a member of the opposition. It was this poor, uncoordinated response to the abduction that necessitated the creation of the pressure group, Bring Back Our Girls and the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls which went viral on social media world over, used by the former US first lady Michelle Obama and celebrities to put pressure on the Nigerian government to act promptly to rescue the girls.
This time, there has also been an announcement by the Yobe state government that the Nigerian military had rescued over 50 of the abducted schoolgirls but it offered next to no details on how this rescue operation took place. By the next day, the state governor had been forced to retract the statement, clarifying that there has been no rescue.
There has also been the claim by the Nigerian minister of information, Lai Mohammed, that the terrorists carried out the attack to embarrass the Buhari-led administration—casting the president as the victim of the attack rather than the girls who were taken. President Buhari himself has yet to publicly address the Nigerian public save for updates from his official Twitter account, which is not the most effective way of reaching all Nigerians.
Even though the Jonathan and Buhari administrations are very different in many ways, the response to each attacks shows how Nigeria’s politicians can be insulated or out of touch with their public.
But while the Jonathan’s government had the excuse of being caught off-guard by a first-of-its-kind crisis, Buhari’s team can’t claim the same.
For example, despite the high profile fallout from the Chibok kidnapping and the relentless focus on young girls and women by Boko Haram, the Nigerian government has failed to properly secure secondary schools in the region and strengthen intelligence-gathering to forestall future attacks by Boko Haram. It is entirely possible the terrorist militants targeted the school in Dapchi in order to use them as leverage for extracting concessions from the government in the same way that they have done with the Chibok girls. (paywall)
The Nigerian government needs to take a number of urgent steps to prevent the free-fall into confusion that this incident is becoming:
First, it needs to learn to better manage information around the abduction by keeping the Nigerian public abreast of developments surrounding rescue efforts by sharing timely updates, rather than allowing others fill the vacuum. There should be clarity on which government official or agency speaks on the abduction in order to avoid a repeat of the mistake that led to the false news of rescued girls.
The government should also quit attempts to stifle the media covering the story or preventing the parents of the missing girls from speaking to the press. The priority here should be the rescue of these girls and not the reputation of the government—the latter can only be redeemed by the achievement of the former.
Secondly, the Nigerian government must ensure security agencies from the military, the police and the Department of State Security (DSS) make the rescue of the girls a number one priority and make use of all available resources. In the Chibok girls’ abduction saga, the time spent by government trying to put a response together was taken advantage of by the terrorists in getting out of the reach of the security agencies. This must not be allowed to repeat itself. Every second counts.
Thirdly, president Buhari should avoid the mistake of his predecessor in refusing to immediately communicate first with the parents of the missing girls directly, and then with Nigerians. This is not the time for him to be holed up in the Aso Rock Presidential Villa and communicating via proxies. This is the time for him to show empathy and to lead from the front as he promised when he ran for election in 2015.
The Nigerian Government must make a stronger commitment to not just containing Boko Haram but totally defeating them. It is evident that despite claims from the government two years ago that the terrorist organization had been ‘technically defeated’, they are still active with a spate of attacks in the North-East region.
The Chibok girls’ abduction was a turning point in public perception for the previous administration and sounded the death knell for it at the 2015 elections. If the Buhari administration hopes to avoid this next year, it must ensure that it handles the Dapchi girls’ abduction better.
It is not too late for it to take corrective measures.