Intelligence agents from all over the globe have poured into this city, Nigeria’s capital, to help find the nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram more than a month ago, but there has been little or no progress in bringing the young women home.
The problem, many involved in the rescue effort say, is the failings of the Nigerian military.
There is a view among diplomats here and with their governments at home that the military is so poorly trained and armed, and so riddled with corruption, that not only is it incapable of finding the girls, it is also losing the broader fight against Boko Haram. The group has effective control of much of the North-East of the country, as troops withdraw from vulnerable targets to avoid a fight and stay out of the group’s way, even as the militants slaughter civilians.
Boko Haram’s fighters have continued to strike with impunity this week, killing dozens of people in three villages in its regional stronghold, but also hitting far outside its base in the central region. Car bombs have killed well over 100, according to local press reports.
One recent night, Boko Haram fighters ambushed a patrol that had sought to leave Chibok, the town where the girls were kidnapped, killing 12 soldiers. The next day, when the bodies were brought to the Seventh Division — the main army unit taking on Boko Haram — soldiers angry about the loss of their comrades opened fire on the car carrying their commanding officer, Maj. Gen. Ahmadu Mohammed, as he was heading to an armory. The commander was unharmed and the soldiers were arrested.
“It’s been our assessment for some time that they are not winning,” said one Western diplomat in Abuja, speaking anonymously in keeping with diplomatic protocol.
For the moment, assistance from France, the United States, Israel and Britain is focused on answering questions that ultimately might guide a rescue attempt. Where exactly are the girls? Have they been split up into groups? How heavily are they guarded?
Desperate for clues, the United States has dispatched drones to scan the 37,000 square miles of Sambisa Forest, a scrubby semi desert tangle of low trees and bushes in the corner of north-eastern Nigeria where the girls are believed to be held.
“You have a lot of guys in town right now,” said the diplomat, referring to foreign intelligence and security personnel. But, he added, “A lot of this is assessment, and this is a pretty steep learning curve.” And one senior diplomat offered a sober picture of the prospect, for now: “Realistically I don’t think we’ve seen anything to indicate that we are on the verge of a huge breakthrough.”
That the hopes of many across the globe rests on such a weak reed as the Nigerian military has left diplomats here in something of a quandary about the way forward. The Nigerian armed forces must be helped, they say, but are those forces so enfeebled that any assistance can only be of limited value? “Now it’s a situation where the emperor has no clothes, and everybody is scratching their heads,” another diplomat here said.
Military officials in the northeast, Boko Haram’s stronghold, insisted that patrols are already underway in the Sambisa Forest, and that 10 days ago one even came close to where some of the girls were being held. It was attacked by Boko Haram, these officials said, and two officers were killed.
Diplomats here in the capital expressed serious reservations about the likelihood that any military operation would return the young women safely. “We’re concerned that a kinetic action” — meaning an armed intervention — “would result in deaths,” a senior diplomat here said. “What are the good potential outcomes? It’s not going to be easy or quick.”
Instead, the government may have its best shot with a negotiated settlement with the Islamists, possibly including a prisoner release, said a military officer in the region. Nigerian officials have hinted of a deal as well, though President Goodluck Jonathan has publicly ruled out a deal.
Some other diplomats here were more pessimistic, saying it was unlikely that all of the victims would be saved. Already, in the region and in the capital of Borno State, Maiduguri, 80 miles from Chibok, there are some credible accounts suggesting that some of the girls may already have been killed. “I think it’s going to be a slow burn,” one diplomat said.
Adding to the diplomats’ worry is a sense that officials in Mr. Jonathan’s administration are dangerously out of touch with the realities of a vicious insurgency that for years had been minimized in the distant capital, until the abductions made that impossible.
Last fall Boko Haram rampaged around the town of Benisheik for 10 hours before the army even arrived. When it was over, about 150 people were dead. In February, when Boko Haram struck a college in Yobe State, in the northeast, it was unguarded by soldiers and a nearby military post was unstaffed, even though it had been attacked in the past.
Still, Mr. Jonathan’s aides were looking to the group to simply free the young women.
“I have reason to believe Boko Haram will see reason and let these girls go,” said Oronto Douglas, special adviser on strategy to Mr. Jonathan, in an interview this week. “I think they will have a conscience to let these girls go.”
Mr. Douglas also suggested the recent Boko Haram video showing some of the kidnapped girls may actually show another group of young women — even though parents have identified many of their own daughters on the video.
Other officials here, stung by Washington’s criticism of the military, have looked to place blame elsewhere. They defensively point to the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, saying that Nigeria is not the only country that has had difficulty with an Islamist insurgency. Terrorism is a global scourge, and “No one person, agency, or country can stamp out terror,” said Sarkin-Yaki Bello, a retired major general and one of the country’s leading counterterrorism officials.
Yet few outside the president’s close circle accept such explanations. Daily antigovernment demonstrations and increasingly critical news media coverage point to widespread anger at the government.
“Now we know the army doesn’t function,” said Jibrin Ibrahim, one of the country’s leading political scientists. “Many people are getting alarmed and frightened.”