Parents say more than 200 girls missing in northern Nigeria

Security walk past burned government secondary school Chibok, were gunmen abducted more than 200 students in Chibok, Nigeria. --AP Photo/ Haruna Umar

The search for the school girls abducted in northern Nigeria continues a week after they were taken. However, there is a significant discrepancy over how many girls are missing.

Islamist militants are believed to have kidnapped 129 school girls from Chibok school in northern Nigeria. The parents of the missing girl say the government numbers do not account for everyone missing. They are searching in a remote forest for the 234 girls that they say are still missing.

It means more than twice as many girls were abducted than the government estimates. Fifty-two of the girls are said to have returned home so far. Families have been told that Boko Haram members are holding the girls in the Sambisa forest, but have been warned of the danger of trying to get them.

“They said they saw a lot of girls that same Tuesday morning fetching water from a stream and leaving … They told us they were certain that girls are still close by, but they advised strongly not to go into that direction because we weren’t armed,” said Folly Teika, the mother of two abducted girls, to Reuters.

Boko Haram roughly means “Western education is sinful.” The group of Islamists, formed in 2002, have killed an estimated 5,000 people and caused thousands to flee their homes. More recently, Boko Haram has targeted schools, churches and town centers for the past few years. Bomb attacks have been carried out following church services, a time when people are gathered closely together to exit the church.

The government of Nigeria has tried to deal with the problem by sending its own security forces to quell the violence. Small successes have been matched with an overall failure to end the problem. Attacks outside of the north-eastern part of Nigeria are far less frequent than they were before. The Nigerian military has succeeded in sweeping the group into one corner of the country, but the attacks continue.

How Boko Haram receives support.
How Boko Haram receives support.
World Policy Journal 2012

A bomb attack struck a bus terminal in the capital city of Abuja on the morning of April 14, killing at least 75 people. Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the attack, on April 19, in a 28 minute video.. It may not prove that the group is again expanding its attack radius, says Ryan Cummings in Think Africa Press.

“If Boko Haram was indeed responsible, it is unlikely that the incident marks the beginning of any sustained campaign by the militants in Nigeria’s capital, or indeed anywhere else outside the country’s north-east. Instead, the attack could be seen more of a reflection of a militant group aware of its operational decline yet which is still intent on posturing itself as a threat of national proportions,” he writes.

The school girl kidnapping and government response are emblematic of the struggle to contain the ongoing violence in north-eastern Nigeria. More than 1,500 people were killed in the first three months of this year, says Amnesty International. The human rights organization has characterized the situation as an armed conflict that cannot be ignored any longer.

“The international community cannot continue to look the other way in the face of extrajudicial executions, attacks on civilians and other crimes under international law being committed on a mass scale. Civilians are paying a heavy price as the cycle of violations and reprisals gather momentum,” said Netsanet Belay, Research and Advocacy Director for Africa at Amnesty International.

While the majority of the killings have been at the hands of Boko Haram, Nigerian security forces are also accused of human rights violations. Witnesses told Amnesty International that security forces executed more than 190 people who were rounded up by members of the Civilian Joint Task Force.

“I saw the soldiers asking the people to lie on the ground. There was a small argument between the soldiers and the civilian JTF. The soldiers made some calls and a few minutes later they started shooting the people on the ground. I counted 198 people killed at that checkpoint,” said the witness.

The lack of development is the underlying problem, argued human rights activist Andrew Noakes in a blog post for African Arguments. Coupling improved conditions for the country with a better counter-insurgency strategy and better political communications between the government and Nigerians can help to deal with the Boko Haram problem.

“The government has the opportunity to portray itself as a champion of security and development,” writes Noakes. “But as long as troops continue to be ineffective and commit human rights violations, and as long as the poverty rate remains high, this will be difficult.”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.