LAGOS – As the weeks stretch into months since her 18-year-old daughter Hauwa was kidnapped with 275 other schoolgirls by Islamist militants in the Nigerian town of Chibok, Rahila Musa Bitrus fasts and prays for her safe return.
“I haven’t given up, but it’s obvious that the government needs to step up their rescue operation so that our girls can be returned to us,” Bitrus, 41, said by phone from Chibok. “It’s so painful and sad.”
Hope for the secondary schoolgirls’ freedom is fading. While Nigeria’s military said in May it knows where they are and last month arrested a Boko Haram cell leader involved in their abduction, the U.S., which is aiding the rescue effort with surveillance aircraft, said their location remains unknown.
Boko Haram, the Islamist group that abducted the girls, regularly attacks the Chibok area in the northeastern state of Borno. Last month, it killed 30 people in attacks on churches and has shown no sign of tempering its five-year campaign to impose Islamic law on Africa’s biggest oil producer.
“The more time passes, the less hopeful the situation appears,” said Manji Cheto, vice president at corporate advisory company Teneo Intelligence in London. “Hostage negotiations in the region have never been easy, especially in cases where the demand from the kidnappers is not simply for monetary gains.”
The U.S., which rushed advisers and drones to aid the rescue effort after the Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls used by U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama went viral, has reduced surveillance flights. Department of Defense Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said June 27 that other countries were taking on a bigger share of the search efforts.
“We don’t have any better idea today than we did before about where these girls are,” Kirby said.
The world may be losing interest in their fate, their attention grabbed by new crises such as the advance of Islamist militants in Iraq and the crisis between Russia and Ukraine, Sebastian Spio-Garbrah, the New York-based managing director at risk consultancy DaMina Advisors LLP, said in an email.
“With ISIS and Ukraine on the global agenda, the Chibok girls like the Malaysian plane may be soon forgotten,” he said.
The abduction drew international condemnation that intensified after Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, threatened in video messages to sell the schoolgirls in “markets,” marry them off and hold them until the Nigerian government freed imprisoned members of his group.
President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration has faced domestic and international criticism over its handling of the April 14 kidnapping. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo said Jonathan, who waited almost three weeks before speaking publicly about the abductions, didn’t act fast enough to free the girls, and that they may never be returned.
“My silence has been necessary to avoid compromising the details of our investigation,” Jonathan wrote in a June 26 op-ed column in the Washington Post. “My government and our security and intelligence services have spared no resources, have not stopped and will not stop until the girls are returned home and the thugs who took them are brought to justice.”
While Nigeria spends $6 billion on defense each year, the military has struggled to battle the insurgents, who have the advantage of being able to hide in their strongholds in rough terrain along Nigeria’s porous borders with Cameron, Chad and Niger.
“The army despite its multibillion dollar annual budget has serious institutional, capacity and logistical challenges,” Spio-Garbrah of DaMina said.
So far, the near daily bombings and attacks are taking place hundreds of miles away from the southern business offices of Lagos or the coastal oil wells that finance the Nigerian state.
The violence is focused in the mainly Muslim north of Nigeria, a country of about 170 million people, with its south dominated by Christians. Jonathan has said Boko Haram, whose name means “western education is a sin” in the local Hausa language, is part of al-Qaida and poses a threat to countries throughout the region.
“Kidnapping is proving a highly successful tactic for Boko Haram,” John Campbell, a former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria, said in a June 24 posting on the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations website, where he is a senior fellow. “Episodes generate local and international media attention, discredit the Abuja government, and may generate ransom payments.”
The suspected Boko Haram cell leader the military says it arrested is a businessman who deals in tricycles and used his membership of a youth vigilante group as cover, Chris Olukolade, a military spokesman, said in a statement on June 30. The man also may have spearheaded the murder of the Emir of Gwoza and coordinated “several deadly attacks” in the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, since 2011, he said.
“Despite continued reassurances, public perception remains that security responses are inadequate,” said Teneo’s Cheto. “Foreign support is unlikely to significantly reduce security risks for now. Assistance from foreign governments remains limited to logistical, intelligence gathering, and training support.”
As the parents of the girls continue their wait, there is debate among them whether they’ll let their daughters resume their studies in Chibok if they’re freed. Bitrus said she’s determined Hauwa will finish her education.
“Some parents said they won’t allow their daughters to go back to school if and when they return,” she said. “But as for me, if the government secures the safe return of my daughter, she will certainly go back to school.”