Nigerian president faces increasing pressure over kidnapped schoolgirls
- 05/18/2014 by David Smith in Abuja (The Guardian)

here have been almost daily protests in Nigerian cities demanding more is done to rescue the students. Photograph: Zhang Weiyi/Xinhua Press/Corbis
Campaigners for the release of more than 200 kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria plan to march on the office of president Goodluck Jonathan this week amid growing calls for him to stand down at the next election.

Activists from the #BringBackOurGirls group said they will present a "charter of demands" to the president, including calls for a more effective presence in militant strongholds and greater engagement with the community of Chibok, where the girls were abducted by Islamic militants more than a month ago.

"We have built up knowledge about the situation and we want to share that knowledge with the president," said Dr Jibrin Ibrahim, a campaign member and civil society activist in the capital, Abuja. "Everybody in this country realises that the government has not been doing as much as it should. It took three weeks before security operatives visited the village. It was an absent state. A state that does not carry out its responsibilities is of much concern to us."

The march, planned for Thursday, risks provoking a harsh response from the security forces. Last week police in Abuja moved in to disrupt a rally and disperse protesters who were shouting, "Bring back out girls now and alive!" Members of #BringBackOurGirls also intend to visit Chibok, contrasting with a public relations debacle in which Jonathan cancelled a visit there last week.

There is increasing unrest over what many see as a failure to react quickly to Boko Haram's mass abduction from a school dormitory in the north-eastern town on 14 April. More than a month later, officials admit they still have no idea how many girls are missing. There have been almost daily protests in Nigerian cities demanding that the government do more to rescue the students.

Ken Wiwa, senior special assistant to the president, admitted on Sunday: "Rather than being about Boko Haram and their atrocities, this is turning into a referendum on Jonathan's administration."

Jonathan sought to appear statesmanlike at an international summit in Paris on Saturday as he discussed cooperation with other west African leaders and French president Francois Hollande. "Boko Haram is acting clearly as an Al-Qaida operation," he declared.

But with elections only nine months away, the hostage situation is turning into a political crisis that threatens to deepen the north-south divide in Africa's biggest economy. As a southern Christian, Jonathan is walking a diplomatic tightrope in Nigeria's predominantly Muslim north, while his vice-president, Namadi Sambo, a Muslim northerner, has been curiously reticent on the crisis.

Many in the north are critical of Jonathan's response. Martins Felix, a school principal in the northern city of Kano, said: "People expected that the president would react immediately but he didn't. The next day he came to Kano instead and was dancing and enjoying himself. It's bad for Nigeria; it's sad to see Nigeria in the news like this."

Abbasaid Sufi, director-general of Kano state Hisbah board, which enforces sharia law, added: "The government is not doing enough. Immediately after the abduction, the government should have acted, not at this hour. The president did not take the matter seriously."

Mustapha Mohammed, a civil servant in Maiduguri in Borno state, where the girls were taken, told Reuters: "I am 100% sure that Goodluck Jonathan will not get a single vote from northern Nigeria. He has neglected the north and especially the northeast."

Further south in Abuja, however, there is sympathy for the scale of the challenge posed by Boko Haram and the difficulty of searching for the girls in a forest spanning 60,000 square kilometres.

Mele Kyari, a manager at the International Centre for Islamic Culture and Education, compared Boko Haram's ability to melt into the bush, for example on motorbikes, with the Taliban in Afghanistan. "It was treated like regular warfare but it isn't regular warfare," he said. "This is a street fight and you don't fight a street fight with a regular army, the same mistake that the Americans made. Did it work in Afghanistan? Did it work in Pakistan? Did it work in Iraq? No.

"There is little you can do when you have a street fight. No amount of strategy can work except involving the local community. They know the people who are extremists."

On the same day as the kidnappings, Boko Haram mounted the worst ever bomb attack in Abuja when a car bomb killed at least 75 people in a working-class neighbourhood. It carried out another bombing at almost the same spot two weeks later. Titus Emeka Okwor, 50, a streetside fuel seller, recalled that Jonathan came straight to the scene: "He was crying bitterly. Our president was crying."

But Boko Haram is just one factor affecting next year's election in this storied nation of 170 million people with myriad religious, ethnic and economic tensions. Perhaps the biggest threat to Jonathan is the All Progressives congress formed last year by four opposition parties. It has been boosted by governors and MPs who quit his ruling People's Democratic party.

Wiwa said: "Jonathan's style is baffling to many people but he's emerged through some very trying and difficult processes. He is difficult to read. But he has spent 14 years in government and knows a trick or two. When the pressure is on, he steps back and then acts when you least expect it. 'Sure and steady' is his motto."

Asked if Jonathan intends to run for president again next February, Wiwa replied: "I've no idea. Even those close to him don't know. Last time he left it late and people were speculating."