Where in the world would the disappearance of more than 240 schoolgirls have been ignored by the world’s press for almost two weeks? The answer is Borno state in north-east Nigeria. Had they died in a plane crash or a sinking ferry anywhere in the world it would have been global front-page news that day.
So why wasn’t it? Because north-east Nigeria is one of the most neglected, least governed, least visited places on the planet.
Tucked in the top-right-hand corner of Nigeria, it backs on to Chad and Niger. You are unlikely to pass through it unless heading for the Sahara desert. It is hot and dry and provides just enough food to feed its rapidly growing population. There are no jobs. Education is dire. When primary school teachers in the area were tested by sitting the primary school leaving exam recently, almost two thirds of them failed.
When news broke of the kidnapping of the girls from a boarding school at Chibok, people began to question the Nigerian government about the incident. President Goodluck Jonathan did not seem to understand what the fuss was about. While a US presidential spokesman in Washington described the incident as “an outrage”, President Jonathan mumbled that it was “unfortunate”. He was later photographed visiting a victim of Boko Haram – the Islamist militant group that has claimed responsibility for the schoolgirls’ abduction – looking away with his hand in his pocket.
And when one of the mothers got to meet the president’s wife, Patricia, to complain that the government was not doing enough, she was promptly arrested.
A reaction of such indifference partly explains the growing success of Boko Haram. An Islamic sect founded 12 years ago, its leader, Muhammed Yussuf, was arrested then murdered by the police in detention in 2009. His followers fled across the border to Niger and were, I am told, met by al-Qaeda operatives who gave them money and trained them in bomb-making.
Immediately the movement launched car-bomb attacks in the capital, Abuja. A suicide car bomber – previously unheard-of fanaticism in money-minded Nigeria – blew up the police headquarters. Another killed 23 people at the UN headquarters there. Since then, Boko Haram activists have carried out assassinations from motorbikes, let off bombs in markets and attacked churches. In one day in 2012 in Kano, it killed 135 people. In all more than 2,000 people have died at its hands.
One reason for its success may come from closer to home. Local politicians and army officers began to make contact with Boko Haram and do business with them. There are reliable reports of senior members of the Nigerian army delivering weapons to Boko Haram by helicopter.
Nigeria’s gangs are usually for hire or can be bought off. Remember those in the Niger Delta a few years ago whizzing around in speedboats brandishing heavy machineguns and draped in bullets? It was Goodluck Jonathan who ended that uprising by buying off the militants, giving many of them jobs on his presidential staff in Abuja. The Delta is now quiet.
But Boko Haram has a bigger agenda, based on its religious ideology. And the heavy-handed tactics of the Nigerian army alienated the local population, who might have helped give information about the group. One Nigerian I spoke to from Maidugri said a typical raid by the special task force would be a sweep in an area, rounding up young men, beating them, even killing some. Then they would do a house-to-house search, stealing what they wanted.
Fortunately that task force has been disbanded and replaced by a newly created army division. But there have been no reports of any successes in finding the girls or the Boko Haram camps. Convoys of Boko Haram vehicles and bikes can still speed around openly.
Nigeria was proclaimed recently to have the largest economy in Africa. It also has by far the largest population, at an estimated 170 million. Most of its people live in poverty, however, because government income comes from oil, from which a few benefit but none has to work or pay taxes. State income just flows from the oil companies. Loyalty is easily rewarded and opposition can – usually – be bought off. The trouble with Boko Haram is that it can’t.
The pressing problem facing the president and his wife is getting re-elected next year. With some $20 billion missing from the oil account according to the – now sacked – governor of the central bank, Lamido Sanusi, it is clear, some may surmise, that Jonathan feels the need for a substantial war chest. But in running again he is breaking with an unwritten convention that was established after years of military rule by northern generals. It is that the presidency should rotate between north and south and no president should stay for more than two five-year terms. President Olusegun Obasanjo, a southerner, was replaced by Umaru Yar’Adua, a northerner, in 2007. He died in office in 2010 and his deputy, Mr Jonathan, a southerner, completed his term and then ran for the presidency the following year. Now he wants to run again but has he had two terms or one?
If he does stand and win, the north will feel even more deprived and neglected and Boko Haram will receive a bonus. Not that a northern president would be able to stop them, but a northern Muslim president could do more to reassure the population that they are listened to, protected and cared for than a southern Christian from the Delta who has been the weakest Nigerian president so far.
Richard Dowden is director of the Royal African Society. This article was previously published in The Telegraph.